FC: Ben & Sarah's World Trip 2011 March 6, 2011 - July 17, 2011
1: Ben & Sarah | "The journey is the reward." - Chinese Proverb | World Trip 2011
2: When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money. ~ Susan Heller | "The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page." - St. Augustine | "What you've done becomes the judge of what you're going to do - especially in other people's minds. When you're traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don't have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road." | "I travel a lot; I hate having my life disrupted by routine." ~Caskie Stinnett | “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in | "In America, there are two classes of travel: First class, and with children." -- Robert Benchley | your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain | “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” – Seneca | "Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen." - Benjamin Disraeli
3: Rarotonga, Cook Islands March 6, 2011 | The journey begins!
4: It's day 2 of our round the world journey. After about 15 hours of travel, we found ourselves on a charming island about the size of a quarter. The island, Rarotonga, is the capital of the Cook Islands and is by far the largest of the 15 islands, with a circumference of 20 miles. Essentially, the entire island is coastline and everything is on beach front property. The international airport, beach front, the police station, beach front, the broken down building of parliament, beach front and of course our one room beach hut, beach front. We're staying at the Rarotonga Backpackers, a small complex with a total of about 10 rooms spread between huts and houses. The majority of the people here are from New Zealand and the accents sound like a mix b/t Australian and English. So far we haven't done much, just visited the main town of Avarau and taken the | single bus around the single road on the island. our complex has a bunch of hammocks hanging up, which is the highlight of my day, reading in a hammock at the water's edge. The weather is beautiful, very warm and humid and so far has been raining off and on. However, even when its raining, its warm. I'm actually perpetually sweating. Stray dogs and roosters roam the island, even now, inside the main house, roosters are walking 5 feet away (they also love to make noise at 5am, when the sun starts to creep up). There's a lot of outdoors activities on the island (actually thats really all there is to do), so i hope to get the chance to do some soon. | Rarotonga, Cook Islands March 8, 2011
6: Rarotonga, Cook Islands March 9, 2011 | Rarotonga, Cook Islands March 9, 2011 | Today was more eventful. We decided to enlist the help of a scooter to get around the island and it was, to say the least, awesome! By the way, to drive around, you need a license and to get said license you must go to the police station. I think this was the first trip where I wanted to go to the police station, weird feeling. Anyways, after getting the license, Sarah and I took a hour, or two long tour around the island. Learning to drive a scooter was an experience, took me a couple mins of driving in the gas station (or petrol station) parking lot before I learned how to turn (Sarah waited as far from me as possible). At least I wasn't waiting for her to learn to drive, we all know how bad women are at driving something with four wheels, much less two ;) Journeying around the island, we came to Muri beach and it was gorgeous, this side of the island (southwest) made the side we are staying on (west) look ugly in comparison. This is when we decided that come Friday, we are moving to the other side of the island for the remainder of the trip (already set it up). After driving around for a while, looking for and missing an illusive waterfall, we found a beaten old path. The path took us towards the center of the island (where few paths go) and on a really pretty drive through canopy reminiscent of Costa Rica. Ten mins or so of this great drive culminated in a somewhat wimpy waterfall, maybe 15' high and more like an inclined stream than a waterfall. However, the drive made the trip well worth it. I'm thinking about doing the drive again. It's also fun to drive the scooter around. The rest of the day was spent planning out New Zealand (I'm excited for the glacier hikes and glowworm caves).
7: Licensed to drive. | Exploring the Island
8: Rarotonga, Cook Islands March 10, 2011 Today was a relaxing day. After enjoying a nice batch of cinnamon french toast and a diet coke (soda is friggin expensive here) we spent all day reading by the beach in hammocks. Already managed to finish off a book (Born to Run). Just walking around the beach is nice and after reading about how nike is the devil, it seemed only just to walk around barefoot. We got a knock on our door around midnight. Tsunami scare from the earthquake in Japan. Didn't sleep much waiting for 5am and our impending doom...which obviously didn't come.
9: Just a
10: Rarotonga, Cook Islands March 11, 2011 We switched hotels today, moving from the west side of the island where we watched the nightly sunsets, to the southeast side, where the water is amazing. The real difference is in the water. The closeness of the reef around the west side prevents swimming, its very shallow and full of reef and rocks. East side swimming is perfect, warm, | clean turquoise water is ideal for spending all day in the water. And we did. Upon checking into the hotel, we went immediately to the beach and into the water. Seeing an island (yes another island) about a 1/2 mile out, we decided exploration of the island was paramount. We walked through the water, since at its deepest was a mere 5ft, and an hour or so later, we reached the small piece of land. The new island was | maybe a half mile in circumference and housed two competing tourist boating companies. It was on this island that we watched their shows of island spirit. Between the drumming and singing, we learned the secrets to opening a coconut, which we later exercised. Before we got to our coconut adventures, we made our way through strong current, which nearly swept Sarah away. It later became apparent that the best strategy for getting her across the ocean divide was by combining our weight together
11: (or me giving her a piggyback ride). One thing about the island as a whole that is interesting (and this applies to all sides of the island) is the reef that surround the shore. About a half mile or more out to sea, stands a reef that divides the quiet beach from the wavy ocean. The beach and the water before the reef is completely devoid of any waves and is as calm as a lake. Outside the reef, waves crash constantly. We haven't trekked out to the reef yet, but we will soon enough (we do have another 5 days on this island). Back to our coconut opening adventure: after finding a couple coconuts under a tree, we began hitting them against sharp rocks. Unfortunately, that wasn't the way to open them. Finding a tree with sharp root like branches, we found the soft spot on the coconut (near the top around the hole). After several minutes of bashing, we began peeling the thick layer of mossy-like skin off the coconut. You may not be aware, but a small coconut is surrounded by a tough mossy skin about 3 times the size of the actual fruit. After ten mins or so, we finally had two coconuts, which after smashing into rock in the sweet spot, opened up (the sweet spot is between the "eyes" of the coconut, which is three holes at the top). Not a huge fan of coconuts, we shared them with the stray dogs (after tasting them of course). It looked like the dog's birthday.
12: Rarotonga, Cook Islands March 9, 2011 | Rarotonga, Cook Islands March 12, 2011 | The day has only just begun, but as I sit typing on my ipad, I'm watching the boat races in the ocean. Sail boats and canoes alike are racing each other in what looks like a recreational racing league. There is a college on the island so I could be mistaken (I don't think more than a hundred people could fit in the classes so I doubt its them). Earlier in the day we ventured into the main town of Avarau, where we visited the weekly farmer's market/fair. We watched the island show of polynesian dancing and tasted the locally grown food and some belgian waffles with ice cream of course. The day finished off with more coconut cracking (four more) and the finishing of my second book this week (dan brown's deception point). March 13, 2011 Lazy day around the hotel. Only left the sunny lounge area to go to the store and get some ice cream. Went through two books today, the Alchemist and Night. Both interesting and spiritual, I can see why they make you read them in school (I never had). Walking along the beach at night made me realize how far from LA we are. Stars filled the night sky. We could see the milky way and many thousands of stars with clarity that can only be when you're in the middle of nowhere. Tried to find the north star polaris, forgot how, something to do with following the big (or is it the little) dipper...
14: Roratonga, Cook Islands March 14, 2011 Today was exhausting. I started my day nice and early (because the roosters wouldn't shut up) with an easy job along the beach. After making it to the end of the beach, I came back to force Sarah out of bed and go kayaking (never do a double kayak with a girl, they don't paddle). We went around the water to the reef to watch the waves break. The reef we discovered was thousands of rocks piled up in very shallow water (like 6 inches), which made it difficult to pass (we couldn't). After finding some odd looking purple rocks and visiting an island with a 1/10 of a mile circumference, we headed back in. After a brief lunch, we headed out to the water fall to start a hike (it rained twice on our way there). We decided to start the hike from the end and work our way to the lookout points before coming back to our moped. This wasn't the wisest idea. The sign at the start should have foreshadowed the difficulty of our hike, it read "it is strongly recommended that the cross-island trek be completed in the north to south direction" (obviously we were on the south side). There were arrows to point the way on the path (just not in our direction). We got a lost several times along the hike and by lost I mean somehow made a trail through pure jungle. The surrounding looked like the amazon, trees as high as you can see and a path that was little more than a 6 inch wide trail. Needless to say when our map recommended a guide, they weren't joking. After ascending the mountain for almost 2 hrs (Sarah collapsed several times from exhaustion), we made it up to the look out point. The path to the point was almost completely uphill, and by almost, I mean 100 percent, up f*cking hill (parts of the trail had ropes because it was so damn steep). For those of you reading this, who went to Switzerland with me, it was like the goat paths, but in the jungle. At the apex of the mountain a good 500m up, we had a decent view of the island, the ocean and other mountain tops opened up before our eyes and a giant rock stood to our south. The way down was real hard and by the time we reached the waterfall, we both were about to collapse. I'm slowly recovering as we speak with some nutella :)
15: Hike from Hell
17: New Zealand
18: Auckland March 19, 2011 = After losing a day because of the date line, we finally arrived in Auckland. Having only one day to visit the most populated city in New Zealand, we enlisted the help of an explorer bus (felt Asian the whole time). First stop on our list was Mt Eden, a crater shaped volcano hollowed out from sulfur mining. After seeing the volcano and the beautiful lookouts over Auckland, we headed to the Auckland Museum, which housed a room dedicated to seismic activity (earthquake simulator). After being tossed around by the volcanic eruptions and the earthquake immediately following, we checkout the exhibits, which ranged from volcanoes and maori culture to the holocaust (apparently NZ was involved...). We continued our day trip with a visit to the aquarium, where penguins, sharks and giant (and I mean giant, about 450kg) stingrays. The day came to a conclusion with drinks at the Sky Tower (like the space needle).
19: Waitomo Caves March 20, 2011 | Dangling from 100 feet in the air, it was hard to believe that only a couple hours earlier I had been warm in bed in Auckland. After renting a car and driving for a couple hours, Sarah and I found ourselves at the Waitomo Caves joining a tour group. These caves, well known for having the greatest density of glowworms in the world, were also the site of my first attempt at rappelling (or abseiling as it's called in NZ). The first step to abseiling down 100 feet into a dark (and wet) cave was to take a leap of faith (literally) out into nothing. After taking said leap, I proceeded to slowly rappel down the cave until I stood in a knee deep puddle at the bottom of the cave. Next we hiked towards one side of the cave, climbing through small (very small) tunnels to get there (I almost got stuck several...more more like every time). At the end, we reached the area where the glowworms congregate in the greatest numbers. There we saw thousands of glowing tails that resembled star formations. Continuing deeper into the cave, we enlisted the help of tubes and went tubing down the black water rapids to the other end of the cave (rapids is a bit of an overstatement). At the other end, we proceeded to hike through waist deep water and over stalagmites and stalactites, while avoiding "tomos" (deep water holes formed by the water's movement within the cave). Hours of adventuring throughout the wet caves (my toes were numb) we rock climbed (about 80-90 feet) back to the surface.
20: Blue Mountains, Sydney March 21, 2011 | As the boat backed up towards Huka Waterfall, we could feel the water rocking the boat and splashing our faces. The falls were about 35 feet tall with a flow rate of about 2 Olympic swimming pools every minute. We took the boat back to the mainland, where we were greeted by the opening of the Taupo dam. After a short hike to a lookout point, we witnessed the pools and river fill up and explode with the force of thousands of gallons of water. Soon after opening it resembled the water falls we had just visited. Continuing on our trip, we drove north to Orakei Korako or the "hidden valley." The valley was a geothermal hotspot, consisting of several geysers, volcanic flow vents and bubbling mud baths. | After flying from Auckland to Christchurch in the South Island, we rented a car and drove around the city. For the most part, the city looked like the damage from the earthquake had been repaired with piles of brick around many of the houses. Part of the city center was, however, demolished. So much so, that we were not allowed to enter this part of the city (also to prevent looting). As we got closer to the center of where the quake hit, we could begin to see the real devastation the quake caused One church lost every stain glass window and much of it's structure, while many buildings were in complete rubble. As we drove through the city, it made me appreciate the measures the US has taken in making earthquake resistant buildings. After leaving the city, we began (and finished) a 5-6 hr drive to the west coast (and to the glaciers). The drive itself was incredibly beautiful went over 60 b/c of the curves). Another note is that the road, no matter how straight still contains many hills, which means you can never really see very far ahead of you (passing trucks really sucks).l with many different mountain ranges and lakes as well as the ocean in the surrounding area. The roads in New Zealand (especially the north island) are windy as hell the max speed limit everywhere is 60 (we rarely our trip, we drove north to Orakei Korako or the "hidden valley." The valley was a geothermal hotspot, consisting of several geysers, volcanic flow vents and bubbling mud baths. | Christchurch, New Zealand March 23, 2011
22: March 24, 2011 | Franz Glacier, New Zealand
24: I was both nervous and excited as we took the small, packed plane up to 12,000 feet. As the door slid open and the wind whipped into the plane, the realization of what we were about to do hit me. Sliding to the edge of the open door, I looked out and down, seeing the glaciers (fox and josef franz) below as well as the ocean and lakes. Rated the number 2 place to skydive in the world (first was everest) gorgeous was an understatement. As the instructor (girl about Sarah's size) pulled me out of the plane I realized there was no going back now. We free fell for about 45 seconds, but it felt like five seconds and before I knew it the parachute had open. It was exhilarating to feel the wind whipping across my face as I hit 200km/hr (120mph) or terminal velocity (hit after 12 seconds). Unlike drop zone or any rides where you drop in skydiving you don't get the | feeling of falling (maybe for the first second or two). The glaciers and mountains around me we amazing (we have pictures of course). The parachute ride was probably the most fun as I could really look around and see everything around me. In our parachute we did some fun spins and I got a chance to steer (and spin) the parachute. After landing it was only 11am, so we drove to Fox glacier and tour a guided hike of the glacier (only way to actually stand on it). The glacier was pretty sweet, it was dirty from rock slides, but the weather conditions smiled on us and today an ice cave had formed on the western side. We played in the cave, which was awesome and walked around the ice for about an hour before heading back in. We ended our day with a nice night drive to Haast. | Franz Glacier, New Zealand March 24, 2011
27: Blue Pools | Queenstown New Zealand March 25, 2011 | Thunder Falls | We woke up extra early, knowing full well we had a long day of driving if we wanted to see Queenstown and make it back towards Christchurch for our flight out tomorrow. It took us four hours to get from Haast to Queenstown. Along the way we stopped to see the Thunder Falls, Fantail Falls and the Blue Pools, the first two were beautiful water falls and later was a glacier river that had a pristine blue color. Queenstown was one of the most beautiful cities I have visited, situated on a lake, the small town looks like a modern version of Italy's Lake Como. We took a gondola up to Skyline, a lookout point with 360 degree views of the city. Paragliders flew from around us and down into the city, it looked pretty fun, however, we didn't have much time to spend in the city. After a couple hours we headed back out on the road. Taking a different highway that we did to get there, we headed north east with great views of New Zealand's second highest peak Mt Cook (12,000 ft). We stopped at Lake Takapo and visited the hot pools. After trying to find a place to stay in the next town, which was all booked, we made it to a small town called Geraldine (were I am currently) and found the only motel in the entire town, which stays open past ten (above a bar).
28: Queenstown New Zealand March 25, 2011 | Cable Car | View from Top | Smile!
29: Ben & Sarah | Down Under | Sydney | AUSTRALIA
30: Sydney, Australia March 27, 2011
31: Sydney, Australia March 27, 2011 Imagine several thousand people crammed into a flea market with Asian people screaming prices all over the place. You now know what happens everyday at Paddy's market. Having never been to an Asian country, this felt like a small part of Asia within Australia. Here we saw everything from Aboriginal art to kangaroo testicles made into everything (yes we got pictures). There was a kangaroo scrotum envelope opener, keychain, clock, you name it. In addition to the variety of ways the kangaroos are being exploited, the market was also home to one of the best fresh food markets I've seen. | Within the market was some vegetables (or fruits) I have never encountered before. All in all, it was a great way to spend our first rainy day in Sydney.
32: Rarotonga, Cook Islands March 9, 2011 | Blue Mountains Sydney March 28, 2011 | A short two-hour train ride from Sydney sits the beautiful Blue Mountains. Named for the blue haze that sits over the mountains, the Blue Mountains are home to the Three Sisters, a rock formation of three boob looking peaks all in a row. Leura Cascades, consisting of cascades and a waterfall over a cliff, were probably the best part of the mountains. After a short hike, we reached the lookouts and watched the water fall over the cliff into the basin below (we tried, but the pictures don't capture how pretty it was). Continuing through the mountains, we reached Scenic World, the tourist rides. We took the glass 'Scenic Skyway' car across the cliff to another mountain side. While in the Skyway car, we got great views of the Kotomba Waterfalls as well as the entire landscape of the mountains. On the other side we took a railway down a 85% decline (I believe they said it was the steepest slope a railroad goes down in the world). After a ten minute hike through the mining exhibits (apparently the mountain was a mining town) we took a cable car back up the hillside over the canyon. | Bondi (pronounced Bond-eye) beach is one of the best beaches I have ever visited. A bus ride outside of Sydney, it is set in a small suburban beach town. The beach itself is not huge, but still decent in size and is home to a major surf community. Unlike the Los Angeles beaches, it is actually clean and had not one piece of 'rubbish' anywhere on it. A short ferry ride from Sydney's Circular Quay (pronounced 'key') is where you can find the Taronga Zoo. Home to koala bears, kangaroos, penguins and a whole variety of the normal zoo animals, Taronga is a great zoo. Aside from the misleading signs and the construction, the zoo was beautiful as it overlooked downtown Sydney. In every picture I've ever seen of a kangaroo, they are hopping around, however at the zoo they were all asleep. One woke up and gave me a play boy pose (capture in picture). Koalas, who sleep 20 hrs/day were all surprisingly awake and we watched them feed on eucalyptus, while tangling from trees. Perhaps my favorite part of the day was all the ferry rides as we saw amazing views of the Opera House, Harbor Bridge and the downtown Sydney area. Taking our second ferry ride of the day, we went out to Manly Beach. Getting dinner over looking the beach, we watched the windsurfers and kite boarders on the water. Also, I made sure to take some pictures of all the Manly signs | Sydney, New Zealand March 29, 2011
33: The Blue Mountains & Taronga Zoo
34: Cairns, Australia March 30, 2011 We woke up early this morning, walked to the Cairns Reef terminal and took a cruise ship out to the outer part of the Great Barrier Reef. After a brief safety presentation, we dove down to the deeper parts of the reef. Thirty-five feet under water, the reef was beautiful and very colorful. We saw a range of sea creatures on dive including clams, fish and sea cucumbers. After our first dive, we continued looking at the wildlife by snorkeling. A couple | hours later, after a Australian style bbq, we set off to the second site of our reef. This area was even better and on my second dive, I encountered stingrays, eels, clown fish (Nemo), clams and a variety of colorful fish and coral. We dove deeper this time, playing around with the different sea creatures around the bottom of the reef. In all, the day went from 8am to 4:30pm, consisting of two sessions of scuba diving and the same of snorkeling. It was amazing to say the least.
35: Cairns, Australia April 1, 2011 We started out the day with a 45 minute gondola ride up the side of a mountain and overlooking Cairn's rainforest. Two mid-station stops yielded amazing views of the Barron falls, a combination of several large waterfalls and cascades in the middle of the rainforest. After landing in Kuranda, the small town in the rainforest, we headed to the Koala Gardens, an amazing zoo. In my life I've been to a lot of zoo, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Sydney and many more that I don't remember. However, no zoo holds a candle to this small zoo in Kuranda. At this zoo we didn't just view the animals from hundreds of feet away through chain-link fences, instead we got to pet, cuddle and feed the animals. I got to hold a koala bear and feed wallabies and kangaroos. Best things I've done in Australia and well worth it. After the zoo, it started raining and it was pouring hard (I know raining in the rainforest, odd isn't it). The short walk from the shops became a dangerous run down a flooding hillside, which culminated in a fun gondola ride back to Cairns.
36: Perth, Australia April 4, 2011 How do you know you've been surrounded by Aussies and Kiwis for too long? You start saying you 'hired' a car instead of rented one. We arrived in Perth late last night from Cairns and hired a car. Our first stop was the famous Kings Park, a beautiful hiking area with botanical gardens and amazing views of Swan River (not lake) and the harbor. After driving around Perth for a while and getting a sense of where we were (western Australia), we set out to the next town, Freemantle, or Freo as its commonly called. Freo is where the real harbor is on the west coast and is more of a boutique town than anything else. Wandering around, we found one of the original jails that England erected to hold all the criminals (ocean front property) as well as the nice beach below the jail. Continuing on, we drove through several towns, stopping whenever interesting signs pointed the way. We went through Rockingham (sight of penguin island) and many others, before finding our way to the Napa Valley of Australia, Margaret River and getting lost trying to find out hostel.
37: Waking up in Margaret River, we drove down to the most southwest cape of Western Australia to the Leeuwin Lighthouse. The most interesting aspect of this light house is its position at the point where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet. The shear ocean forces at work at this point has shipwrecked almost 80 boats in the last hundred years. Back in the car and heading north, we found our way to the crown jewel of the Australian cave network, Jewel Cave. This cave is known as one of the most ornate and decorated caves in Australia (probably the world as well). Active for many hundreds of years, the water and the resulting calcite has adorned the cave with thousands of colorful stalactites, stalagmites, columns and other interesting formations (see pictures). FYI stalagmites are on the cave floor (the might reach the ceiling). Leaving the Jewel Cave, we journeyed to the next cave on our map, the Lake Cave. Lake Cave, housed in a hundred foot crater is filled with several meters of water with only a small walkway | mostly a light show, put on by an Irish Aaround one side. Many times smaller than Jewel Cave, our hour long tour consisted of ustralian (yes, both accents were evident). The caves most famous and stunning feature was a 'table' or column (made from the formation of a stalagtite and stalagmite coming together, which was floating in air (not touching the ground). Mammoth Cave, the last cave we visited was aptly named for the shear size of the cavern. It was about 40 meters deep and maybe a hundred or so meters long. In other words, it was mammoth in proportions. Seemingly long, at this point it was about 4pm, and fortunately all the wineries and breweries stayed open to about 5pm or 6pm. Finding a sweet brewery in the heart of the Margaret River region, we tasted many local brews, from Pale Ales (which I still hate) to blondes and amber ales. Calling it a day, we drove for a couple hours and made our way to Bunburn, a coastal city 200km south of Perth. | Margaret River, Australia April 5, 2011
38: Western Australia April 6, 2011 Waking up in Bunburn and after visiting a couple of its many beaches, we headed north to Rockingham. An island a couple km off the coast, Penguin Island was named for having over 2000 penguins living on the island. | However, you will see none of them walking around the island (it should have been called seagull shit island instead). On the bright side, a conservation organization set up a viewing area for 10 penguins (called fairy penguins because they are so small). We watched the penguins swim and feed for about a half hour in a small intimate setting that really allowed us to be within feet of the penguins (too bad we couldn't touch them). After hanging around the beaches and hiking around seagull shit island, we headed back to Rockingham to enjoy one of the beautiful beaches before heading to find some free wifi (apparently every McDonald has free wifi).
39: At 9:30am, the jet boat operator told us to strap ourselves tightly into our seat belts to ensure we don't go overboard. The boat was small and at the front was the primary site of the coming action. Late to arrive, Sarah and I were nestled in the second row, warmed by our waterproof parkas provided to us by the Rottnest Mega Blast ferry company. Only lasting for about 20 minutes of roller coaster-like action, the jet boat provided us with transportation from Western Australia's Fremantle harbor to Rottnest Island. Rottnest Island is considered by many to be the best part of Western Australia and after spending the entire day on amazingly beautiful beaches surrounded by no more than 2 seagulls and the occasional German tourist, I had a good idea why. As part of the WA Marine sanctuary, no motor vehicles are allowed on Rottnest Island (called rotto by the locals) except for the single Seabreeze shuttle bus that circles the island (clockwise only). Over the course of the six hours we spent on the island, we managed to lounge on three beaches, two of which were our own personal beaches, we shared the first with an Osprey and a Photo 3couple snorkelers (Osprey looks like a bald eagle). We finished up the day with a ferry ride back to Fremantle and a frantic drive to Perth's international airport. | Western Australia April 8, 2011
40: Singapore April 9, 2011 | It was 3am when we stepped off the plane and after four when we cleared customs in the world's number one ranked airport (Changi, Singapore; pronounced Chang-hi). With little to do at 4am (5am by the time we tried to sleep), Sarah and I took up a position on a couch in Terminal 2, only to be woken up shortly after by the Airport's reception opening. Exhausted, but somehow awake, we managed to waste enough time to allow the rest of Singapore to open. After taking the exceptionally clean (and cheap) subway system to downtown Singapore, we hitched a ride on one of the three 'hop on hop off' buses operating out of the rather small town. To envision the entire country of Singapore, think of a tropical and clean Los Angeles county. The tour bus took the day's planning out of our hands as we relaxed in the air conditioned bus (it was 90 degrees outside). Our first stop (mandated stop) was the surprisingly beautiful Botanic Gardens (not botanical). The landscape opened up in a lush green tropical paradise with a blue lake in the middle. Home to bonsai and orchids among others, the Botanic Gardens were a nice way to wake up. After my second caffeinated beverage, for those of you reading this that know my predilection for Coke Zero, you can guess my preference, we headed to little India. This area, named for the smell of curry, was home to a notable mosques. The Sultan Mosque was shaped like the buildings in Aladdin, which made it great scenery. Wondering around the area, we stumbled on the Heritage Center, which promised to teach me about the rich history of the Singapore people. Tired as I was, I chose to learn that they descended from Sumatran people, before promptly napping on a park bench outside. Traversing a couple main streets and sketching looking Indian-Singaporian people, we made our way to Arab street, home of a couple dozen local shops (no I didn't buy you anything). Continuing on the bus, we made our way a couple shopping malls for lunch before heading to Chinatown. Visiting a temple with odd decorations, consisting of figurines, we found the local Chinatown shops before heading off to catch our flight to Thailand. I spent the couple hours leading up to take off in a reclining chair and enjoying free wifi, the title of number one airport in the world is well deserved (they also have a movie theater and gym, which I did not frequent). The only oddity in the airport, beside the smell of cleanliness was that security was performed only before actually boarding the flight at your gate. Seemed inefficient, but worked better than LAX, so I guess it is, what it is.
42: Southeast Asia | Welcome! | Sawat dee kah Sawat dee krup Sin Jao!!!
44: After a late night flight from Singapore, we're finally in Thailand. We're staying with a friend of Sarah's brother (Robert) who runs a foundation for homeless/family-less children. The foundation itself is up in Chiang Rai (at the northern border of Thailand and Myanmar. For the next four or five days we are staying in Chiang Mai, the old capital of Thailand for the upcoming Songkran Festival (water festival), which in the words of a tour book is a mixture of Ibiza and a waterfall or Mardi Gras in a hurricane. A day ahead of the US, on Sunday, we got a ride to the main city of Chiang Mai (we're staying in a suburb) and found ourselves in the largest local market ever. Held once a week (on Sundays) from 5pm til midnight, the Walking Market takes over about 10-15 square blocks of the main street and downtown area. All the vendors are local people selling | whatever goods they have either acquired or made. Perhaps the best thing about Thailand is that nothing costs more than a dollar and most things are less. We may or may not have bought a lot of souvenirs and such, which some people may be getting as a present. Throughout the market area are famous temples every couple of blocks, many of which are very beautiful and ornate. After spending 5 hours at the market, I feel as though I saw about a third of it. Our way out of the market was met with a staged dance performance and fireworks. It was nice welcome to Thailand. | Chiang Mai, Thailand April 10, 2011
46: Rarotonga, Cook Islands March 9, 2011 | Chiang Mai, Thailand April 11, 2011 | Well, the Songkran festival celebrations are certainly picking up. Water fights frequent the main downtown area, mainly between tourists and local teenagers. We definitely got attacked several times, fortunately the previous day I bought a new backpack with a waterproof covering to protect our computers and passports (not that mine is in good condition anyways...damn ocean). After walking around the city this morning, visiting random shops, we decided to spend the majority of the day at the spa. For 1200 baht, or about $40 we spend 3 hrs getting various thai massages. Outside along the streets you can get massages for even less, about 120 baht for an hour (or $4). We spent the rest of the day wondering around day 2 of the Walking Market. Typically the market is only once a week, however, because of the festival it lasts all week long, although today was about one third the size. After watching a cultural thai dance show and buying our super soakers for wednesday battle royale, we made our way back home to get ready for tomorrow's zip lining, rappelling and hiking tour. | Among the top of the mountain, one hour northeast of Chiang Mai, sits Jungle Flight. Here, we embarked on a 4 hour trip ziplining through 34 platforms and rapelling (or abseiling) down four different platforms with drops ranging from 20m to 40m (70ft-130ish). The ziplines were fast, fun, and some were pretty long (about 180m or close to 600ft). Also included were canopy walks, which were a little over a half mile and about a hundred feet above ground. The bridges were pretty rickety and the engineering looked unsafe at best, however we survived without the bridge breaking. The end of the trip included an advertised 'happy ending' which ended up being the 40m abseiling down to the base camp. Abseiling down was probably the most fun part as the 40m drop takes about 2 seconds to complete (they pretty much drop you down). | Chiang Mai, Thailand April 12, 2011
47: Songkran & Ziplining
48: Chiang Mai, Thailand April 13, 2011 Songkran (the water festival) also known as the Thai New Year, is the craziest of Thai holidays. However, the first part of our day started our tame. By paying a visit to our host's aunt, we fulfilled the first part of Songkran, honoring your elders. Afterwards, an almost in an act of god, it started raining. The downpour (coincidently during the water festival) hopefully offset the amount of water that people then wasted on each other later in the day. After the rain ceased, we jumped on the back of a pickup truck with buckets of water and super soakers. On the 20min drive to the main city (3hr in heavy traffic) we were met with hoses, buckets of water and ice cold super soakers. On a normal day in Thailand, the ice water would have been welcome, however on this day, the weather was far colder than another day. Everyone, by the time we reached the city was shivering. We met up with some friends of our host's daughter and proceeded to load up 2 pick up trucks with 30 people (just on the backs). As we got to the main street, which of course is the street surrounding the canal, the water war really began. Tens of thousands of people gathered with buckets of ice, super soakers and hoses, to greet the thousands of trucks and other people in the road. We shared the road with street vendors selling food, ice, drinks and a variety of drenching devices. As we drove through slowly (it took 3hr to get through) we saw 5 different live music shows playing simultaneously, one with a foam machine. The day continued in this fashion, living up to its moniker "Mardi Gras in a waterfall."
49: Chiang Mai, Thailand April 14, 2011 Today was a hot day in contrast to yesterday's rainy and cold weather. The Songkran festival and the water fights last through the entire week, so we took the truck out to Chiang Mai again to join in the festivities. No one shivered today as the ice cold water was thrown haphazardly around, hitting everything from motorcycles and new borns to food vendors and the elderly. It was a hell of a day. There were so many people out, it took us 5 hours to get close to the main street lining the canal. We couldn't even see the amount of people, however what we could see was people hanging off temples and entire families on motorbikes as well as more than 15 people stacked on the back of pickup trucks filled with water. After the fun, we hit the road, driving north to the Mae Kok Foundation in Chiang Rai (named after the Mae Kok river, which borders the property and Thailand's border with Burma).
50: Chiang Rai, Thailand April 14, 2011 The Mae Kok Foundation sits on several acres of land about 27km north of Chiang Rai, essentially its in the middle of no where. Its an incredible peaceful place, surrounded on one side by the Mae Kok river (across the river is the Mae Kok Elephant Camp). Despite the twenty-five children running around, its somehow extremely quiet as well. We spent the morning walking around the grounds, seeing everything from the soccer field to the girls' and boys' dormitories. At breakfast, the children introduced themselves to Sarah and I, in English. The childrens' English is limited, however its years ahead of my Thai and helps us to communicate. In the spirit of the Songkran festival, we brought hoses and buckets of water up to the road (which was surprisingly busy today) and proceeded to soak oncoming motorcycles and open backed trucks, in addition to each other. After hours spent wet and in the hot sun, we retired to the shade and worked on our Thai with several of the kids. They would read the Thai out loud to us from our guide book and we'd attempt to mimic the language. The hardest part of the Thai language, besides the K's sounding like G's, is the different tones in the language. The word Mai can mean anything from burn and wood to news or a question. Since American's aren't accustom to tonal languages, it makes it quite a challenge. We ended our day with a trip to the natural hot springs, 2km from the foundation and a great homemade Thai dinner.
51: Chiang Rai, Thailand April 16, 2011 | We woke up to the sun beating down through our windows. Thailand seems to get hotter everyday. After lathering our bodies in sunscreen (and bug spray) Sarah and I gathered together the Mae Kok kids and started to teach them bits and pieces of the English Language. We taught them various phrases and answers from "what is your name" to "how is the weather" and basic directions. It was mostly a makeshift lesson plan, since the DVD we were going to teach off of was for the most part a waste of time. The DVD suggested the kids needed to learn phrases like "have you seen the news lately? No why? A young student committed suicide because of a broken heart." Sentences, such as this one, didn't seem like the most pertinent information to supply to the children. We had fun with teaching them how to give directions by kicking around a soccer ball and having them guide us to it. In the process, we are beginning to learn a bit of Thai. I have the kids say the Thai words in addition to the English for me to learn. The hardest part in teaching Asian countries English is correct pronunciation for sounds that they do not have in their native tongue (like Rs and TH sounds). Later in the day we took a trip to what I thought was going to be the local market for some vegetables. I was surprised and understood why the kids were laughing when I asked where to park the car for the market, when we got to a huge field. We were going to pick the vegetables. On a walk through acres of grassy, muddy and hilly property, we picked semi-browned ferns, bags of them (in the sweltering heat of course). Our reward afterwards was a dip in the creek that bisected the property. Our day ended by eating said ferns along with a variety of other traditional Thai dishes, yellow curry, chicken and cashews and the vegetable fern dish. I don't think I'll ever get sick of Thai food.
52: As the last day of the Songkran festival comes to a close, we spent the morning listening to a sermon in the church on the Mae Kok property. The sermon was given by our Thai mom and one of the younger girls on foundation, Wow (no idea the spelling, but thats how its pronounced) who I believe is 12 years old. I'll ask her again in Thai later (Kun ah yu tow rai, said more like coon a you tao rye). I understand why the Thai have trouble with the English R sound. Its because the Thai "r" is pronounced by a mixture of rolling the R plus the L sound. So Rai is pronounced by amalgamating Rye and Lye together into one word and rolling the R. After the sermon, given by the adorable Wow, we went into the main city of Chiang Rai for lunch. Since the traditional restaurant (singular, apparently there is only one restaurant in Chiang Rai) we ate at the local shopping mall. The shopping mall, however, was gigantic. It was four floors and larger than most Los Angeles malls, probably around the size of the Century City's | Westfield mall and full of American fast food. In an effort to make the rest of the world as fat as Americans, we have expanded McDonalds, KFC and Starbucks to every Thai city, its sickening. After lunch, we headed out to a local market (so local, Sarah and I were the only non-Thai people there). At the market was a range of products, from dried fish heads to insects and living and flapping catfish. We tried to capture a picture of the fish flipping into the air, however after 10 attempts, we were unsuccessful. The trip to town ended with a two-hour traditional Thai massage. On our way back to the foundation (along 27 km of windy roads) a storm hit. It was raining so hard that several tree blocked half of the road and we could barely see in front of us. We felt like it was a monsoon hitting us (in dry season), however fortunately the storm subsided a couple hours later. | Chiang Mai, Thailand April 17, 2011
54: Mae Sai, Thailand and Myanmar April 19, 2011 Okay, so the only reference to opium was the opium museum. But our journey to the Golden Triangle actually starts with our trip to Burma or Myanmar as its now called. Without knowing if we could get a day visa across the border, we went through Thai customs and emerged on a bridge half belonging to the Thai government and half belonging to Myanmar. To distinguish the two, the bridge is painted in two different colors and you must switch sides at this point because while the Thai drive/walk on the left, the Burmese people drive/walk on the right. Myanmar customs is unique in one way, that they take and hold your passport, while you are in their country. They issued us temporary Myanmar passports (made of paper) and containing all our US passport information. Upon crossing custom, we were immediately bombarded with Tuk Tuk drivers wanting to shuttle us around town to the popular destinations. In their hands were pictures of the destinations along with a photo of their taxi (some had pick up trucks where you sit in the back). In our tuk tuk we made our way to three of their most popular Temples. The second temple, gigantic and gold in appearance sat on top a big hill with some decent views of the city. Sarah performed a good luck new years prayer with guidance from a little boy, which included pouring water over the Buddha and hitting a gong nine times (nine is the Buddhist good luck number). After visiting the temples, we headed to the local market. The products for sale resembled what you might find in China (because that is where the product came from). They had everything from rip of Louie V purses to Breitling watches, however none of even decent quality (what do you expect for 100 baht or $3). After tasting some Burmese food (not as good as Thai), we went back to Thailand and through a similar market on our way back to the car. We then proceeded to drive to the Golden Triangle. While the town we came from, Mae Sai was called the Golden City, the Golden Triangle is where the borders of Thailand meet those of Myanmar and Laos in the middle of the Mekong River (also looks like a triangle). In the past the main agriculture of the area was opium, which made the drug lords rich (hence the 'Golden'). Unfortunately when we got there it started thunder storming, making my pictures not wonderful, however it was a really cool place. You can even take ferries to the Laos border from Thailand. The wind was strong so the market had closed down, but the architecture was amazing. A huge Buddha stood in the middle of the market square along with statues of elephants and boats throughout the area. We continued our drive back to Chiang Rai through Chiang Saem the old capital of Thailand (it was later moved because of its proximity to Laos and Myanmar). The old city was surround by three city walls (in ruins, they no longer provide much protection) and inside sat the ruins of a huge temple. Very cool to see and a great day all around.
56: Chiang Rai, Thailand April 20, 1011 Sarah and I started our magnificent day by teaching an English lesson. Since the children pick up words very quickly, we covered a lot of vocabulary, ranging from colors to kitchen items and types of clothing. After lunch, we drove the kids to the local waterfall, which is amazing. Huge waterfall that is somehow shallow enough for all the kids to safely play in. I tried climbing a couple feet up the waterfall, which proved very difficult as the water pressure is immense. The cool water was very refreshing after the steep, muddy hike to and from the falls. Upon returning to Mae Kok, we set up an Elephant ride from the camp across the river. The elephant and its Mahout (elephant trainer) crossed the river to pick us up. We climbed onto the elephant, riding on a makeshift seat on the elephants back, while the mahout sat shotgun on the giant's neck. Riding an elephant is amazing fun and especially jerky. I imagine it would be far less jerky riding on the neck, which is probably way more comfortable for both the elephant and its rider (we plan on spending a day learning to be a mahout when we are back in Chiang Mai). Along the way, the elephant stops frequently to eat any and every vine or weed near by. I imagine it must have to eat quite a lot of weeds to maintain its size. After crossing the river, we walked on the land, taking a brief tour through the Karen village (hill tribe) where the camp is located, before heading back across the river to the Mae Kok foundation. We ended our day by planting a dozen rose bushes on the foundation grounds in front of our room. Hopefully they live through the coming storms.
57: Chiang Rai, Thailand April 21, 2011 We spent the morning teaching the Mae Kok kids English. Our two hour lesson included reviewing kitchen and out doors vocabulary along with school subjects and action verbs. It was great to see how quickly the kids can catch on and learn the language (they make our Thai look like a two year olds in comparison). It is common knowledge that Asian cultures have certain tendencies when pronouncing Engrish words, especially mispronunciation with the L and R sounds, in addition to the TH sounds. My mom made a suggestion that made our teaching these sounds go much smoother. We spend a significant portion of time teaching them how to physically move their mouth in the right shape and position to make the sounds. For example, making a TH sound involves biting your tongue. Conversely, for English speakers the Leuaw sound in Thai requires one to open their mouth exceptionally wide and bring the their tongue pressed hard against the bottom of their mouth. This made the children's pronunciation much better and reary sped up our lesson.
58: Chiang Rai, Thailand April 22, 2011 We said goodbye to all the children at the Mae Kok Foundation and headed out on a 4 hour car ride to Chiang Mai. Along the way, we stopped for some Vietnamese food, which was like Pho, but with pig liver and intestines (I may have dry heaved when I found out). After getting back to Chiang Mai and checking into our hotel, we headed out to some of the nearby temples. We went through three of them, one with the worlds largest cross-legged Buddha (I think thats what the sign meant). At the last temple, we turned off and went through the Night Market or Bazaar. As we embarked on this journey, | we had no idea how large the night market was, however, we soon discovered the shear size after spending four hours wondering. The night market was pretty amazing, spanning probably twenty or thirty blocks and encompassing many side streets and entire four floor malls. They had everything from Thai clothes to silver and people painting portraits. The artist were probably the most impressive many drew from pictures and post cards and somehow made them look like photographs. After buying up half of Thailand (yes many souvenirs for those reading this) we took a tuk tuk back to our hotel (I love those little golf carts).
59: Chiang Mai, Thailand April 23, 2011 | After much anticipation, Sarah and I spent the day learning to be Mahouts or Elephant Trainers. After an early wake up and a brief tour of an Elephant Dung paper factory (yes you heard me right, elephant dung paper), we arrived at the Baanchang Elephant Park. An understatement would be to say that this experience was merely fun or exhilarating. This was friggin' incredible! First we fed the elephants sugar cane and bananas (they like the bananas more). The little baby elephants would actually only eat the bananas. Some of the friendlier elephants would even let us feed the cane and bananas directly into their mouths. However, some would only let us feed them from a far. It was really evident that elephants have strong personalities much like humans do. Afterwards we learned the commands (in the Karen hill tribe language) for mounting and elephant (non long), turning left or right (kway, while essentially turning their head with your legs), go straight (pii) and stop (how). We spend about an hour practicing mounting and riding the elephants around the park before taking a lunch break of good authentic Thai cuisine. After lunch and a break to lather ourselves in deet and spf 30 and a hammock break, which was incredible in the bamboo like hammocks (I would totally buy one and ship it back to California if I could), we headed out onto the mountain. Riding bareback and sharing an elephant, we rode up straight up the hillside. Sarah started as the rider (on the elephants neck, which is the most comfortable place to ride), while I held on for dear life on the back (just kidding I wasn't about to fall). At the halfway point we swapped and I had the time of my life steering the elephant downhill back to the base camp. Amazing. We continued past the camp to the bathing area (pretty much a muddy swamp), where I jumped in to bathe the elephant (Sarah wimped out). Instead of brushing the elephant, I decided to play with it and jumped on its neck. The elephant was cute, she shot water at me (many times) and I dumped baskets of water back. I'm still stunned by the amazingness of this experience. Highly recommended. After returning to Chiang Mai and taking a brief nap, we headed out for a nice dinner and a 1.5 hour massage (one of the best I've ever had, going back tomorrow). All around, one of the most memorable days on our trip.
61: Baan Chang Elephant Park and Tiger Kingdom | Mahout for a Day! | Meet my Pet Tiger | Chiang Mai, Thailand
62: Chiang Mai, Thailand April 24, 2011 After enjoying my morning cup of tea at our hotel's continental breakfast involving a random assortment of Thai, American and Japanese breakfast items, we caught a Songtaew to Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai's most famous Wat (temple). Songtaew are essentially pick up trucks with two lines of seats in the back (songtaew translates to 'two lines') and are not the most comfortable way to travel on windy mountainous roads. After a half hour of nauseating driving we arrived at the bottom of the Doi Suthep's 309 step staircase. Being the lazy Americans that we are, we opted for the elevator to the top of the stairs. At the top, we were met by a dozen red and gold buildings with one central glowing temple. The central gold temple was quite a sight and after taking fifty pictures of it and completely draining our cameras battery, we headed down the 309 steps to our awaiting Songtaew. The stairs are pretty interesting, there is a dragon on either side that goes the entire length of the staircase (see pictures). Returning to Chiang Mai, we headed for the Walking Market (like our first day in Thailand). Needless to say, this being our last Walking Market, we bought enough stuff to warrant measuring items in Kilos and not by number. I won't describe what we bought because some people may be receiving these items at a later date. During the market, we took a brief hiatus to get Thai massages from our favorite massage parlor, Rest and Relax (or something like that) off the main strip.
63: One of the best parts about traveling outside the United States is that you are able to experience things that American law prohibits or insurance will not cover. Fortunately, Thailand doesn't have these worries and because of this freedom we were able to 'play' with tigers. Upon arriving at Tiger Kingdom, we were presented with different packages based on the size of the tiger we were to 'friend'; we chose the most popular package: smallest and largest tigers. Fortunately, starting with the small tigers warmed us up for the larger ones. The baby tigers were about 5 months old and weighed approximately seventy pounds. It could have been that they were virtually asleep or our over confidence in their silent tolerance of our presences, however it was less frightening than I thought. The larger tigers on the other hand were much more intimidating. Weighing over three hundred pounds and pure muscle, these animals could rip us to shreds with a swift bat of a paw. The trainers gave us specific instructions: do not look them in the face or touch their face/front paws and do not approach them from the front. Unlike the baby tigers, these beasts weren't happy just sleeping and kept getting up while we were petting them. I started to get nervous when the trainers started jiggling keys to | distract the tigers as it kept looking back at us (J-Lo the tiger and I had several staring contests; the judges are still out on the winner). At one point one tiger decided to be amiable and wanted a belly rub (I was quick to acquiesce and it was awesome). Amidst the fun, we learned of a HIV positive youth foundation visiting the kingdom. Unfortunately its not safe to let little kids in the cages with the tigers, however that didn't stop the trainers from putting on a show for the enthusiastic youngsters. The trainers provoked the tigers (with bamboo sticks with leaves on the end) into jumping into the water and chasing down the stick. At one point, one tiger managed to capture the leaves and would not let go. It was spectacular. Next on our itinerary was the monkey camp, which turned out to be a ploy to lure foreigners into watching abused monkeys ride bicycles and pick numbers. Upon arrival into the devil's dominion, they quickly usher you to cough up 200 baht, while telling you the show is already in progress. Show? I thought I was going to get to pet monkeys like in the tiger camp. But no, I was to walk past twenty chain monkeys before watching them perform tricks. If you are ever in Chiang Mai, DO NOT GO TO THE MONKEY CAMP! | Chiang Mai, Thailand April 25, 2011
64: At the next animal facility we were introduced to many different types of snakes, up close and personal. We held a huge python as well as touched king cobras. The snake trainer ever put on a show with two fully venomed cobras (they showed us the cobra secreting venom into a glass). That guy had balls, he earned my 200 Baht. Our stop following the snake reserve, was the home of six local hill tribes. Thanks to people like Thai Mom's late husband, the hill tribes are flourishing from the increased tourism to Thailand. The people of the tribes sell their hand made goods as well as bring foreigners into their culture by demonstrating local traditions. One such tribe is the Karen Long Neck villagers. Previously I thought the tradition of putting gold rings around women's necks was isolated to African culture, however it is also a custom of the Karen villagers. After buying way more that we could ever need or want (we felt like we needed to donate to the hill tribes to off set our inadvertent support of monkey abuse), we headed to the waterfall. | This Nam Tok (waterfall) consists of ten separate falls spread out over probably a mile of hiking. We walked up to view the most impressive of the ten, which happens to be the second one. It was about ten feet high and unfortunately the water was extremely muddy. Tired, we cut our trek short at waterfall #5, which was more of a stream and headed home to rest before Night Market. Much like Walking Market of the previous night, we bought enough souvenirs and random thai trinkets to last a lifetime. Along our walk through the market, we did discover a second market with in the market. This one was in a shopping center and also happened to host a huge food court and a cultural show. After finding my favorite food, Gang Kur Rhee (yellow curry), we found a seat with a good view of the cultural show. The second performance turned out to be an exhibition Muay Thai match, which was pretty great. We got to watch three rounds of Muay Thai (which looks similar to kickboxing). | Chiang Mai, Thailand April 25, 2011
65: Bangkok, Thailand April 26, 1011 After sending off a 15 Kg (33 lbs) shipment of souvenirs back to the states by sea (mom expect a package in 2-3 months and don't open it!), we set off on a fifteen hour train ride to Bangkok. Little did we know, that the train is ALWAYS two to three hours late so it was closer to an 18 hour train ride. Fortunately shutting off the lights at 9pm and waking us up at 5am, gave us plenty of time to see the Thai countryside around Bangkok.
66: Bangkok, Thailand April 27, 2011 Coming off of the overnight train to Bangkok (and on three hours sleep), we managed to check into our hotel many hours early (I love starwood hotels). After showering off the stench of a sweaty train ride, we grabbed some food, downed a red bull and headed out to the river region of Bangkok. Taking the 'scenic' skytrain to the ferry hub (lonely planet I prefer to think of the skytrain as cramped more than scenic) we landed a ferry day pass. Quickly draining of energy (Sarah already asleep on my shoulder), we stopped at the fifth ferry terminal for some coffee from our local favorite, the Black Canyon Coffee Shop. After waking Sarah up, we headed to Wat Pho to get massages. However, we never ended up getting massages at the famous Thai massage school because we got side tracked by the 180 foot long statue of a Relaxing Buddha. The head of the Buddha alone was about twenty feet by twenty feet and the construction of the entire statue was impressive to say the least. Even the Buddha's ten foot high shoes were augmented with beautiful mother of pearl, while the rest of the statue shown in plated gold (or painted who really knows). The rest of the temple or series of temples I should say, were no less impressive. The entire grounds hosts almost 400 different statues of Buddha, many over twenty or thirty feet high. All these statues are in addition to the gigantic temples and pillars standing hundreds of feet high. Returning to the area surrounding our hotel around five pm, we found the local shopping mall "Times Square" and proceeded to tour the area. Noting the price of massages was triple that of outside the mall, we exited before Sarah was able to find any stores she liked. Outside the mall we treated ourselves to some Thai papaya, which tastes more like green apples. Touring our hotel, we discovered the roof top bar and infinity pool (oh how me must suffer to grow strong). All those purchases on my starwood credit card finally paying off in free hotel rooms After Sarah's fifth nap of the day, we headed out to find a night
67: market and some food. We decided to walk to one of the local markets, which was about a mile or two away. Little did we know that the organization of the streets in Bangkok is incredibly messed up. It is organized like block pattern, however there are no streets running perpendicular. Instead the streets are more like fingers, long and without turnoffs. After making our way all the way down to where the market should be, but on a parallel street, we found out that we would have to go all the way back to switch roads. Additionally, the night market we were headed to closed up four months ago. The tuk tuk driver telling us all this told us he would bring us to the Patpong night market. Or so I thought (we later discovered the he told us closed was still up and going). After a thirty minute tuk tuk ride around the one way streets in bangkok (the distance we were going was more like a half mile, but the streets make it 10 miles to drive there), we arrived at a seafood restaurant. Which brings me to my first piece of advice: NEVER GET IN A TUK TUK IN BANGKOK. I should have heeded the warning, but I found out the hard way. After finding out that this restaurant was also the most expensive seafood restaurant in Thailand, we ditched the tuk tuk driver and found someone to take us back to the hotel. We ate at the restaurant in our hotel, called 'Wrapped' before going up to the rooftop bar, 'Armbar.' Somehow, we were the only people at the bar, which suited us well because the bar had a plethora of open bed booths you sometimes see in hotel bars. This bed booth was also the sight of my first nap of the day. I woke up to Sarah finishing her mojito and a green laser advertising on the neighboring building and called it a night.
68: Bangkok, Thailand April 28, 2011 | Much like the previous day, Sarah and I headed down to the river docks to catch the river express ferry. Wearing jeans and closed-toed shoes (in 95 deg weather) we headed to the Grand Palace where we were told we would need to comply with the strict dress code. After getting lost a couple times in the amulet market and almost falling victim to a couple scammers, we made it to the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha (both in the same area). The place was huge and consisted of 32 touristy buildings, some temples, pillars, halls, palaces, mansions..etc. The emerald Buddha was one of the major attractions, which was small in size, however it was about 100 feet high atop many statues and pillars. After finishing up the tour of the palace, we quickly changed into our hot weather clothes and continued back to the ferry terminal. Our next stop was Wat Arun, a great temple, which consists of flights of stairs that almost straight up. Upon arriving at the temple, we started up about a hundred or so steps. The first set were normal, the second set steeper and by the time we hit the fifth set, they were the steepest steps I've ever seen. Views from the top were phenomenal and we could see much of Bangkok and the river region. Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel, making our way to the rooftop bar to meet some hometown friends. | Giving into the ninety something degree weather, I made my way to the pool, while Sarah continued to sleep. A couple hours later, when Sarah woke up, we headed out to Siam Paragon and the Siam Center, both huge malls. Siam Paragon was interesting because there was always something going on. They had two live bands playing, simultaneously on adjacent floors. After getting some Thai-Italian food and a guide book to Vietnam (our destination tomorrow), we went back to the hotel to dress up for drinks at the Dome Bar on top of Lebua hotel at the State Tower (quite a title). The view from the open bar at the top of the 62nd floor was amazing, showing us almost 360 degrees of the city. After toasting bangkok and attempting to photograph every degree, we headed out to the Patpong Night Market. This market was smaller in size than the Chiang Mai markets, however the atmosphere was completely different. Surrounding the market on all sides were strip clubs attempting to lure in tourists with ping pong and sex shows (of course Sarah insisted we go...joking). The goods sold at this market resembled the ones we had previously frequented with some extra shops full of knock off products and DVDs. After looking around and getting hounded by shop keepers to buy their products, we headed back to the hotel to prepare for our flight to Vietnam tomorrow | Bangkok, Thailand April 29, 2011
69: Wat Arun and Lebua State Tower
70: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam April 30, 2011 | We woke up late, had breakfast and headed out to the airport. After a couple hours of customs and flying, we landed in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Vietnamese customs was an interesting experience. Having already secured a document (or letter) from the Vietnamese Embassy saying we are allowed to enter the country, we still had to get our visas. We found a line labelled "landing visas" and found that once we reached the counter, no one spoke any English (every traveller in line did though). As we reached the counter and handed our passports and letter, the man proceeded to demand something else, which I assumed was a passport picture. He affixed the picture to another form, which we filled out and returned to the next window. This woman spoke absolutely no English and when I asked her what was going on, she ignored me. So we waited. After a little while she pointed to me and held up my passport, apparently we had visas now. Continuing on to customs, we found that Vietnam just tries to confuse you by putting the non-English speakers at the beginning of your trip. Everyone else we met could communicate, not easily, but it worked. By the time we arrived at our hotel, it was around 6pm. We headed to a restaurant right outside our hotel before heading to the Ben Thanh Night Market. Along our way to the market, we saw thousands of people of all ages. Unsuspecting of the holiday, we just assumed Vietnam was overrun with people, after all this small country is the 13th most populated nation in the world. Our walk past the huge local park was full of interesting sights. For one, the side walk is used as second street by motorbikes. Second, motorbikes outnumber cars by 100 to 1, or more. Third, a stage was erected and on it was nothing but little kids playing with a thousand people watching them. One of the most interesting and life threatening experiences came as we tried to cross the street. In Vietnam there are very few streets with walk signals and traffic laws are ignored and blatantly disregarded. It didn't matter if the light was red or green, they went...from both directions. Its a wonder only thirteen people die each day in traffic accidents. We watched a couple of locals (with their 5 year old daughter) crossing the street to learn their survival techniques. After summing up some confidence, we started inching across the intersection as motorbikes continued past us, swerving to avoid us and not slowing down at all. After defying death, we arrived at the Ben Thanh Market and discovered that everything they sold was a knockoff. They have knockoff shoes, shirts, bags, purses and every other imitation clothing or accessory item you can imagine. What caught my attention was the local wine, or snake wine. Fitted with a snake in a bottle (not sure yet if they are real) the wine's primary ingredient is snake venom. Wondering around the market further, we found about three or four square blocks of knockoffs being sold, before being surprised by a sudden fireworks show. It was then that we discovered the number of people in the streets may be due to Vietnamese Labor Day. The fireworks were a fun introduction to Vietnam and a nice conclusion to our first night.
72: Early in the morning, with a red bull attached to my hand, we headed down to Saigon's boat dock. We climbed aboard a jet boat and headed off on a 2 hour boat ride to the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Viet Cong and American soldiers battled in Vietnam War (called the American War here). We started above ground with a tour detailing the life of the Viet Cong. Over seventeen years, the Viet Cong dug 250km of underground tunnels, reaching from outside Saigon all the way to the Cambodian border. The tunnels consisted of three levels: the fighting level, the living quarters and the explosive storage area. Tunnels were a minimum of six meters deep and reached up to thirty meters at the third level. To think the Viet Cong did all this with a very small shovel and a basket to carry out the dirt. We saw the different structures they used to ambush American soldiers, from the covered holes in the ground to the wide variety of booby traps. The Viet Cong also managed to reuse everything that they got off American soldiers, from the tires to the clothing. Our guide also detailed the tactics the V.C. used to avoid detection from hunting dogs (they wore U.S. uniforms and used the troops' soap). After the above ground tour we made a pit stop at the shooting range, where you can choose from a variety of guns to shoot including: M16 or AK47 (assault rifles), M60 machine guns and several more. We chose to shoot the AK47, which was pretty awesome. I could have spent the rest of the day at the range just trying out all the different guns and attempting to see where my bullet struck. Moving on, we had a "guided" tour of the tunnels. Despite my pictures, which shows a well lit tunnel (from the flash), the tunnels were pitch black. To walk in the tunnels you had to stoop down since they measured no more than two feet high and two feet wide. These tunnels were also the tourist tunnels because they had been expanded from the original size to fit people larger than the Vietnamese. We ended our tour with some authentic tapioca, which looked like yams and tasted like Yukon potatoes. By the time we returned to the city (after two more hours in the boat), it was still before noon, so we headed back to the hotel briefly, before heading back out. Our first stop was supposed to be the War Remnants Museum, however our cab driver dropped us off at the Reunification Palace instead. We looked through a couple of the rooms before figuring out where we were (or were not). So we toured around the palace, seeing rooms were Ho Chi Minh entertained guests, worked and signed a paper reunifying the Northern Viet Cong with the Southern Saigon Government. Next we headed to the War Remnants Museum, or as it was originally called "The Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes." There is actually nothing about China in there, so I'm uncertain why they were included. The museum consisted of anti-American propaganda and many outlandish accusations. Information presented names the U.S. as the sole enemy of Vietnam during both the war with the French and the civil war with South Vietnam. Throughout the entire museum, it is never mentioned that the Viet Cong ever fought against the South Vietnamese (Saigon Government), despite them making up the majority of the soldier (something like 62,000). It was interesting to read many of the questionable facts Photo 4presented within the museum and the views of the government. There were some horrifying parts to the museum. The room detailing the after affects of Agent Orange showed horrendous pictures. Generations of birth defects plague the Vietnamese still. We actually saw a guy begging on the street who had obviously been a victim of this toxic gas. Continuing on after the Hate America museum, we visited the Notre Dame cathedral, which was open today and the bar at the top of the Sheraton. The Sheraton's bar had beautiful views of the city (and horrible service), which we enjoyed while sampling Vietnam's two local brews: Saigon Special and 333. A busy, but fun day. | Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam May 2, 2011
74: Mui Ne, Vietnam May 3, 2011 We took an early bus to a beach town, four hours | outside Saigon. The town is very small, maybe with a population of a couple thousand. This area is known for its beauty and it did not disappoint. Our hotel, like fifty percent of all establishments in Mui Ne, is situated on the beach. The beach came | and went as the high tide completely swallowed the shore and the low tide left a beach fifteen feet wide. Grace Boutique Hotel, where we stayed was very beautiful and for a fifth of what you'd pay in the US, we found a | room overlooking the water and the infinity pool. We spent the day getting situated, setting up our ATV sand dune tour for the next day and relaxing by the beach. Essentially, we were living the hard life.
75: Sand dune tours run twice per day, sunrise or sunset. Anything in between (and probably at sunset as well) your body will be burned to a crisp. On the recommendation of our hotel owner, we rose early in the morning (4am) and boarded our green and white hooded jeep. An hour later we arrived at the spectacular white sand dunes just as the sun was beginning to rise. We hopped on an ATV and set out to some undisturbed dunes away from the base and the other 5 people awake at this time of day. With us, we brought plastic sheets, which we used to slide down the sides of the sand dunes, albeit not very quickly. Sarah did manage to get scared at the tremendous speed she was accumulating and stop midway (yes its all documented in pictures). After several attempts at flipping the ATV and after I had ascertained that it was very possible, we left for the red sand dunes. Orange in color, the red dunes had a very beautiful glow to them. However, in the theme present throughout all of Vietnam, the beauty was undermined by the usage of a national treasure as a landfill. Our Photo 2stay here was brief, after admiring the color and discussing how we could single handedly bring cleanliness to Vietnam, we headed out. | Next stop was the fishermen's village, which was a collection of a massive number of boats. Hundred of fishermen live in both their boats and the small town surrounding it. They use small circular, wicker boats (like a big bottle cap) to get from shore to their sea vessels. Last on our itinerary was the fairy stream (not sure how it was named). The stream goes through a very beautiful area where the red and white sand dunes mix together. There are also a couple lime stone formations and colors of clay, which ranks this among the most beautiful sights in Mui Ne. After returned back to our hotel at 9am, the rest of the day was spent sleeping and relaxing by the pool. | Mui Ne, Vietnam May 4, 2011
76: Nha Trang, Vietnam May 5, 2011 Midday, after another morning of swimming and reading, we headed to Nha Trang, a larger more metropolitan beach town. The journey took about six or so hours, so by the time we got in, we went to bed and set up an early boat tour for the following morning.
77: Nha Trang, Vietnam May 6, 2011 | After an early wake up call and an expectedly late shuttle to the pier, we were finally on the water. Beautiful and crystal clear, the water is somewhat of an anomaly in Vietnam. Its seems as though the water is the only thing that is not used as a dump. That is not to say that they aren't trying to, it just seems the South China Sea is too large for the frequent cigarette cartons to fully tarnish the clarity of the water. Our first stop of our cruise was an island where we snorkeled for several hours in two different sites. Visibility here was the best I have ever experienced. I could see fifteen meters to the sea bottom or as far sideways as I could on land. It was incredible. The fish were typical tropical fish, different colors and very pretty. Only two types of fish within the three snorkel sites were really different and notable. The first was a trumpet fish, which like the name suggests, is very long and thin and looks like it would make a hell of a sound if you tried to play it. Second was a lion fish, which had a sort of gill like mane that would expand when confronted. Our guide made loud sounds underwater to goad the lion fish into its fierce defensive posture. After spending all day on the boat visiting the several islands we headed back to the harbor, looking like sun burned crabs. Unfortunately, the sunscreen we bought from the dock vendors was not waterproof (we found out the hard way). On the way back to the harbor, we took a detour to the fishermen's village, which was markedly different from the one we saw in Mui Ne. This village was almost entirely built on the water. Each individual house was floating and used to trap and farm fish. It was a very unique and impressive village. After returning to our hotel we headed out to the night market. After wondering for three full minutes, we discovered this night market was extremely small and headed home disappointed.
78: Nha Trang, Vietnam May 7, 2011 Still sunburned, and scared of the sun like vampires, we waited for the sun to recede before heading out to have fun. We were booked on the overnight train to Hoi An, which left us the entire day to mess around. At around four pm, we headed to the beach. Amazingly, it was still very hot and the beach was packed. Amusingly, the beach was somewhat segregated into foreigners and Vietnamese. Water along the beach was crystal clear like when we were out of the boat. We dinned on the beach at a restaurant, which served novel or rare western food like frozen mojitos and After Eight (the dinner mint) milkshakes. Both were extremely good. After our taste of home, we headed out to catch our train. We quickly discovered that Vietnamese trains are not meant for foreigners, no matter how many actually ride the train. No signs or anything in English or any other language for that matter. Little Vietnamese even indicates, which train your on or where you are headed. The train, despite claiming to get cleaned is littered with trash and insects (one probably leads to the other) and the beds are lined with visibly dirty sheets. However, all that can be chalked up to it being Vietnam and forgiven. The real bad part is that despite the abundance of non-smoking signs, the Vietnamese passengers don't seem to care and in the train lingers a strong smell of cancer.
79: Hoi An, Vietnam May 8, 2011 The forty-five minute car ride from the Da Nang train station to the small suburb of Hoi An was a beautiful drive along the coast. This area is becoming more industrialized as the hotels are buying up the land and replacing the locals' shanties with 5-star resorts. Arriving in Hoi An, we immediately liked the small riverside town. Our hotel was very close to the river and upon checkin, we managed to secure a huge room with a view of the river. The hotel itself was very nice and offered a very good buffet breakfast. So far every hotel in Vietnam includes breakfast with all rooms and they all seem to have very good breakfast food. After tossing our bags on the bed, we headed out to see the town. Out of the hundreds of shops in town, about ninety percent were tailoring shops. Knowing that it can take several days to get | clothes made, we picked out what we wanted made, which turned out to be a total of 2 suits, 5 shirts, 7 dresses and 6 pairs of shoes.
80: We spent the entire day going to fittings and having our clothes tailored. At night we walked around the river, which was lit up by large disney-like statues in the water. We enjoyed a nice | hookah and walked around the night market buying up all sorts of local goods. | Hoi An, Vietnam May 9, 2011
81: Hoi An, Vietnam May 10, 2011 | Ready to leave for the airport to fly from Hoi An to Hanoi we discovered our flight was delayed 8 hrs. With no other available flights, we spent the day in Hoi An getting more stuff tailored and riding our bikes out to the beach. The beach is one of the most beautiful in Vietnam, with clear and clean water.
82: Chiang Rai, Thailand April 22, 2011 We said goodbye to all the children at the Mae Kok Foundation and headed out on a 4 hour car ride to Chiang Mai. Along the way, we stopped for some Vietnamese food, which was like Pho, but with pig liver and intestines (I may have dry heaved when I found out). After getting back to Chiang Mai and checking into our hotel, we headed out to some of the nearby temples. We went through three of them, one with the worlds largest cross-legged Buddha (I think thats what the sign meant). At the last temple, we turned off and went through the Night Market or Bazaar. As we embarked on this journey, | we had no idea how large the night market was, however, we soon discovered the shear size after spending four hours wondering. The night market was pretty amazing, spanning probably twenty or thirty blocks and encompassing many side streets and entire four floor malls. They had everything from Thai clothes to silver and people painting portraits. The artist were probably the most impressive many drew from pictures and post cards and somehow made them look like photographs. After buying up half of Thailand (yes many souvenirs for those reading this) we took a tuk tuk back to our hotel (I love those little golf carts).
84: Sydney, Australia March 27, 2011
85: Chiang Rai, Thailand April 21, 2011 We spent the morning teaching the Mae Kok kids English. Our two hour lesson included reviewing kitchen and out doors vocabulary along with school subjects and action verbs. It was great to see how quickly the kids can catch on and learn the language (they make our Thai look like a two year olds in comparison). It is common knowledge that Asian cultures have certain tendencies when pronouncing Engrish words, especially mispronunciation with the L and R sounds, in addition to the TH sounds. My mom made a suggestion that made our teaching these sounds go much smoother. We spend a significant portion of time teaching them how to physically move their mouth in the right shape and position to make the sounds. For example, making a TH sound involves biting your tongue. Conversely, for English speakers the Leuaw sound in Thai requires one to open their mouth exceptionally wide and bring the their tongue pressed hard against the bottom of their mouth. This made the children's pronunciation much better and reary sped up our lesson.