Whew! Just got back from a whirlwind of amazing vacations! So many stories and photos to share. I’ll try to be brief, but that isn’t my strong suit when it comes to this blog. Again, I’d recommend getting a snack and a cup of tea before reading this post.
For the first part of our 10 days off from school we (Nozomi, Laurie, Sean and I) went on a snorkeling trip to the Surin Islands with Gene and her family. Gene has a younger sister named Yok, and both her parents work as veterinarians. The Surin Islands are a archipelago located 55 km off the coast of Thailand in the Adaman Sea. It is a national park, and unlike other islands we had been to that were “national parks”, this one was completely run by the park service and had nothing else on it besides park-owned offices, canteens and campsites.
We took a van overnight to get to the islands, and were happy to escape Bangkok where everything was shut down because of the red shirt protests, including BTS (skytrain), our favorite form of transport. We awoke the next morning at 5:30am to get a delicious breakfast of rice porridge with fish, hot tea and fried dough at a morning market before heading to the pier to catch a speed boat over to Ko Surin. Once on the islands, we got around using longtail boats – noisy little buggers with an unmuffled truck engine attached to a long prop for power. Our home for the next 2 nights were a few tents at a campsite in calm bay facing the Adaman sea. Right off the beach there were some mangrove trees with bay nurse sharks swimming around, and bright coral was visible even from the shore!
In the afternoon we did our first snorkel. Gene had given me a mask with lenses so that I could see clearly without my glasses (score!). When I first jumped in I was floored – there was a giant forest of vibrant, blue staghorn coral and hundreds of tropical fish. I giddily swam around, amazed by how much life there was. We did three snorkels the first day, each with new wonders and surprises. I saw pudgy puffers, a suave sea turtle, large lobsters, skittish squid and a ton of trippy tropical fish. All the snorkel spots were within 30 ft of the surface, perfect for an up close look by free diving. We got back in the afternoon exhausted and hung around on the beach playing cards until a dinner. The weather was perfect for a relaxing on the beach, and Gene, Sean and Nozomi ended up sleeping on the beach since it was cooler than the tent.
The next day was packed with snorkeling. We did 7 snorkels in total. On one snorkel the coral was within a few feet of the surface so it wasn’t necessary to free dive down to get an up-close look at the reef. My favorite dive of the day was off the coast of “Dragon Island”. The blue staghorn coral was teeming with vibrant blue and orange tropical fish which made for a complete contrasting colors overload. We saw two decent-sized moray eels with teeth like a table saw. The coolest thing was a 50 ft free dive down to look under a giant piece of coral which had a school of fish so thick you couldn’t see through it, a 4 ft tall angel fish, and a bunch of giant sea fans as large as large as I am. I love free diving. I could dive down really far, and loved diving just were the reef started to drop off into the depths. Swimming down past the reef and then up towards it on the slope felt like swimming up a mountain, and diving down under spires of coral made me feel like I was in a forest with fish as birds. Sometimes I thought I saw a big fish off in the deep, and although I did see some puffers, it was usually just Nozomi on a deep dive as well.
Between each snorkel we had delicious snacks, including dried whole bananas were were really, really good (Since they were so good, I’m bringing a bunch back for you all to try!). In the evening we did a night dive with flashlights off of our beach. We didn’t venture into deep water because our flashlights weren’t strong enough, but we still managed to see another two moray eels, a big puffer fish and some other cool silvery fish that only came out at night. The fish were a lot less skittish at night for some reason – I could practically have touched them.
We fit in 2 more snorkels in the morning of our last day on the island. We went really far out to an islands practically on the Thai-Burma border. The water was very deep, over 30ft, but it was great sea turtle territory. I saw three turtles on the first snorkel, and other one on the second. By this point I was very comfortable with free diving, so I would dive down within inches of the turtles and admire the patterns on their backs. On the second snorkel I got attacked near the surface by a fish the size of a minnow. I have no idea what it was thinking. I also saw a GIANT grouper about 5 ft long camouflaged into the bottom. I was sad we had to leave such a beautiful place. It was the first island we had been too that wasn’t overrun by resorts and drunken foreigners.
We arrived back in the early morning on Wednesday and slept in late. In the afternoon, Noz, Sean and I met with Toshi and Mo on Silom Road to celebrate Songkran. Songkran is the Thai new year, spread over three days. Tuesday was celebrating the end of the old year, Wednesday was the “transition day” and Thursday was the first day of the new year. It is also known as the water festival, because Thais believe that water washes away bad luck. I’m not sure what the white clay was for, but it is customary to smear it on others’ necks and faces.
We armed ourselves with white clay and used water bottles as squirt guns, and withing minutes of walking down Silom were completely soaked and had white clay all over us. Thailand is certainly not a very physical culture; they wai instead of hugging or shaking hands. In fact, I’ve only gotten 2 hugs since I’ve been here : (. So seeing everyone smear clay on each other was a surprising spectacle.
People would drive by on the street in pickup trucks with barrels of water in the back, using buckets to splash everyone around the truck. All barrels generally had a giant block of ice floating in it and many people put ice cubes inside the canisters of their squirt guns to keep the water cold. The ice cold water felt wonderful in the heat. It was great to see everyone participating and having fun, not just first-time foreigners or children, even despite the high tension of the protests and shootings that had happened a few days before.
My favorite moments were when Toshi got relentlessly attacked by a little kid with a squirt gun and a death glare who was taking the whole fight thing way too seriously, and when another kid hailed me over to his pickup truck only to bucket me dead on from head to toe. There was a firetruck there too! A crowd soon formed around the truck, blocking traffic. The hose was so powerful that it disabled a passing tuk-tuk at one point, which had to be pushed out of the way. At one point a group of foreigners tried to attack the fireman, only to have the hose turned on them full stream at point blank range. We left completely saturated and left a trail of little footprint-shaped pool of water as we boarded the skytrain back to Evergreen. Just as we started to dry off, we walked down the alley to Evergreen and were met by the maids who quickly dosed us again with water.
In the late afternoon we (Noz, Sean, Laurie, Wolfgang and me) headed to the train station to catch an overnight train to Chiang Mai in the North of Thailand. The train was great! It was surprisingly fast, on time and comfortable (we had beds!), and it was great to wake up to mountains, valleys, fields and a bright orange sunrise outside the train window.
Once we checked into our guest house, we spent the entire day participating in Songkran festivities. Chiang Mai one of the larger cities in Thailand. It has got several temples, many dating back over 700 years. (You can read about it more online…). What is important to note is that the “old city” is a roughly 1-mile square, surrounded by a city moat which was the water refill point of choice for Songkran festivities. Pick up trucks circled around the city, the people in the back exchanging buckets of water with those on the sidewalk. The sidewalk around the city moat was packed with people, and there were concerts, foam machines and free-running hydrants that added to the magic. It was like being on one of those water-park jungle gyms. For an hour I set myself up with a bucket next to a pipe gushing water around the height of my shoulder, perfect for filling my bucket, chucking the water into the crowd and then reloading in a matter of seconds. Towards the end of the afternoon when it started to get colder we appreciated the ice cold water less and less. Noz, Wolfgang and I walked back to our guest house through the old city, just barely managing to dry off and warm up a bit before being dosed again.
We changed into dry clothes and headed to the Chiang Mai night bazaar for dinner, now having to be as agile as ninjas to avoid getting soaked by the many people still participating in the Songkran festivities which lasted well into the night. Most of the stall were closed because of the holiday, but we did see very colorful, vibrant hill-tribe clothing and textiles and several painters at work. After loading up on gifts and exhausted from a full day of water fights and walking, we headed back to guest house and zoonked out.
On day 2 in Chiang Mai (Friday) we rented bikes and toured the city. In the morning we stopped at Warorot market. The market was brought the word “clusterfuck” to mind with the variety and disorganization of stuff for sale. It had a bunch of cheap and interesting foods – Sean and Noz bought some fried bugs (crickets, bee larvae) and I bought some apples (4 for $1!). Next we visited several temples, including Wat Phra Singh, the most important temple in Chiang Mai, before stopping for a most delicious lunch at a street stall. In the afternoon, Noz, Sean and I set out to visit the Chiang Mai National museum and hill tribe museum a few kilometers north of the city, only to discover that they were closed for Songkran or undergoing renovations and wouldn’t be open until September, respectively. It was a long way to bike in the heat, and the ride kicked the energy right out of us, necessitating a pleasant afternoon snooze.
In the late afternoon we stopped at Wat Chedi Luang, known for its enormous chedi, then biked out to Wat Suan Dok to go to a “monk chat”where you can ask the monks about anything, only to discover it too was closed for Songkran. We returned to the old city for dinner and a relaxing evening at a bar.
So many of my assumptions about Chiang Mai were shattered from biking around – I had envisioned a quaint old city surrounded by agricultural fields, not the bustling metropolis, air pollution and city streets similar to Bangkok that surrounded the city. The old city still had much of its former self intact, with the temples providing an anchor, but much of it had been transformed into guest houses, restaurants and massage parlors.
On Saturday we did a guided hiking and mountain biking trip on Doi Suthep, a large mountain to the west of Chiang Mai. We were dropped off near the base of Doi Suthep for our 1000+ meter climb to the summit. I hadn’t been hiking in 4 months, and I really felt it on the hot, dry, constant uphill climb. In fact, this was the longest I’d gone without doing a substantial day hike since before my first year DOC trip.
We passed two camps of wandering monks who simply live of water in the stream and eat bananas and other less pleasant foods they find on the mountain. Talk about being one with nature!
Further up the mountain we encountered places that had recently burned. Our tour guide, Denoi, said that he hadn’t seen the mountain burn like this for the seven years he has been here leading trips.
Upon reaching the summit we came to a Hmong hill tribe village, although you could hardly tell since road access and proximity to Chiang Mai meant nothing visible was left of the culture. Denoi jokingly bought us “hill tribe noodles”, which were just instant mama noodles, and “hill tribe ice cream” which was shaved ice with a sugary syrup. There were a few cars and motorbikes around and a school with a soccer pitch. What was really cool was that nearly every house had a solar array for electricity! If a poor village in rural Thailand can do renewable energy why are we having such a difficult time in the States?
We geared up and began the long, fast and fun ride downhill. It took a while to get used to mountain biking again – I’d only been riding a few times at Dartmouth. But I picked it up fast and still remembered how to bunny hop (thanks Kodiak for teaching me!). The trail took us down through a new fire that had just started that day, and a bunch of red shirts were around in a pick up truck. Denoi assumes they started the fire because they are the parks firemen and get paid per fire, not per month, so they set fires to keep their jobs. As Sean so bluntly pointed out, “that’s the stupidest thing we’ve seen in Thailand!”. The smoke was mildly irritating to breathe but it was a really a bummer because it obscured the view from the mountain. The smoke was just hanging in the valley, not going anywhere.
We rode down through lycee orchards on a dusty, rugged jeep track. Towards the bottom we did three single track runs over roots and off little ledges. I completely survived the last two runs which I was really pumped about! The road came down to a lake, where helicopters were hauling up giant buckets of water to put out the fire. We ate a amazingly delicious lunch of red chicken curry on the beach before heading back.
After cleaning up, we set out to get massages, which only cost 120 baht ($4) an hour. The massage felt incredible after an intense day of biking and hiking, but I couldn’t help contemplating how a place could stay in busy at such a cheap price. Afterwards, we went to the Chiang Mai gate for a delicious dinner of fried mushrooms, smoothies and coconut bars ($2 all together), and then headed to Saturday walking street where every Saturday evening a ton of vendors set up a market along the street. I bought some more gifts and amazing flair.
On our last full day in Chiang Mai (Sunday) we rented motorbikes. They cost $5 to rent for the day, didn’t require a license to drive, and we only needed to give our passports as collateral. Apparently, if you get stopped by the cops, there is just a 400 baht ($12) fine. Oh Thailand….
Sean and Noz had ridden before on Ko Tao, but that was it. Luckily, these bikes were automatic and the roads were in great shape, so it was easy riding. I rode on the back of Sean’s bike. We took off to the east of the city to visit the handicraft factories. We stopped at an umbrella painting shop with giant umbrellas, a giant jewelry gallery, a wooden handicraft shop and silk farm/factory/warehouse.
The host at the jewelry gallery must’ve initially thought I was a worthy customer, because she first directed me to $1-2k rings. I guess once I asked to see the most expensive jewelry in the store it tipped her off that I was just there for show, and she then directed me to the $20 silver bracelets and $4-5 pieces of small carved jade. I kept thinking in the store: why would I drop $5k on a tiny piece of metal and stone when I could buy a doughnut machine for the same price? Priorities people. Geez.
At the silk factory we got a brief demonstration of how silk is made. Silkworms make cocoons, which are then collect and boiled in a pot together. While boiling, the threads are collected and pulled out together in a process called “reeling”, making silk thread. Then the thread is washed, dyed and spun to make silk thread.
After lunch back in the city, I took over driving the motorbike. It was the first time I’d ever driven a motorbike, and that morning was the first time I’d ever been on one. It was surprisingly much easier than I thought it was going to be. I suppose mountain biking the day before helped.
We stopped at a 50 baht ($1.50) ice cream buffet to eat was much ice cream as we could in one hour. (yet another reason to love Thailand). The scoops were small, about 2-3 to make up a normal scoop of ice cream. I packed down 26 before I decided that maybe a stomach ache wasn’t worth the awesomeness of the buffet.
With our added weight, we rode out to Doi Suthep National Park where we had biked the day before and drove up the steep, winding, scenic road towards the top. It was a blast driving up the mountain. Our bike was going hilariously slow. It barely had enough power to carry Sean and I up, and we slowed down to 10km/hr on some uphills.
We stopped at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a famous temple of Chaing Mai on the mountain. We climbed the temples supposedly 300 steps to the top (I think there were actually less than this?), which was actually much less straining than I thought it would be. Perhaps hiking up 1000m the day before had changed our perceptions a bit. The temple was crowded and overcommercialized, but still very pretty. It had giant gongs, a great view of Chiang Mai, and a beautiful Chedi and buddha images. A jack fruit tree was growing on the temple grounds. Jack fruit trees are very funny looking – their giant fruit grows directly out of the trunk! On the way out some lady tried to sell Sean a singing bowl – a metal bowl that made a sound like a wine glass when a wooden mallet was run on the outside. Sean was obviously not interested, but the lady kept persisting and dropping the price – all the way from 1900 baht ($57) to 300 baht ($9). It shows just how marked up things are here for tourists, and why bargaining is so important.
We rode up the road further the Phu Ping (yes, it’s pronounced “pooping”) palace, the king’s winter palace. The palace and restrooms were closed, but it was still worth the ride up. We appreciated the cooler temperatures on the mountain which were at least 10F colder than in the city. We rode down in the late afternoon sun, which was very pretty as it set over the mountain.
In the evening we set out to Sunday walking street. Like the Saturday walking street, every Sunday thousands of vendors line the main road through the center of the old city, creating a massive market that stretches from one side of the wall to the other. It reminded me of Chatuchak with its size; it took nearly four hours to walk through the whole market. Most of the stuff was souvenirs and trinkets – wood carvings, scarves, bags, clothes, trinkets, shoes, souvenirs, etc. Sean again pulled his powers of bargaining (which basically consists of saying “it looks great, but I don’t want it”) to get a reversible robe down from a 900 baht to special to a 750 baht “one time only price” then to a 600 baht “give-away” as he was walking away. The bargaining here is fascinating to watch, some vendors are obviously much better than others.
On our last day in Chiang Mai we visited the Chiang Mai Zoo. It was great to visit a zoo in Thailand, just because the animals were so different; a hard to find animal in an American zoo is common here and vice-versa. We saw tigers, jaguars, hornbills, monkeys, bearcats, cobras and many more animals. The highlights for me were a few koalas and a baby panda. The animals in generally didn’t look to happy, and many were rather sick. The zoo seemed to be focusing a lot more energy on advertising than animal welfare. I split with the group to go see an animal show. The highlight of the show for me was an otter that picked up trash and put it in a wastebasket.
We stopped again at at Warorot market for snacks and gifts, then headed to the train station. Our train left 3 hours late and got into Bangkok 5 hours past its 5:45am arrival time. So much for the Thai railway being better than Amtrak. At least the train ride gave me plenty of time to read. I was able to bust through “Deception Point” by Dan Brown, finishing it by Tuesday afternoon. The last book I read through in less than a day was a book from the Redwall series back in middle school.
Friday is the last day of classes, and I have three finals next week. They won’t be too stressful, since they all cover only material from the midterm on. I leave for home Sunday, May 2nd in the early morning, and will be back in time for dinner (the time change works in my favor this time!). I’ll write one more quick post after finals, and then a final post just after I get back. Family and friends – see you all in two weeks!