Monday, October 12, 2009

Sayonara Asia - A look back at a life-changing adventure

So, it's been a little over 4 months since we've returned from our amazing trip to Southeast Asia. We have been running around, with moving to Boston, starting a new job, going back to school, meeting new friends... However, even with the craziness of starting a new life, we often find ourselves thinking back on our 6 weeks through Japan, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. I thought now, after being back in the states for 4+months, it would be the perfect time to look back and give my thoughts and perceptions on the trip of the lifetime.

Southeast Asia turned out to be so much more than I ever expected. I knew I would have amazing experiences and that I would be visiting a place so different than where I live, but I didn't realize how much I'd be impacted by this wonderful area. Some of my thoughts:

1) The power of the human spirit is unbelievable. I used to find myself complaining because I couldn't take vacation without working, or I had to cook another night. However, seeing the poverty that exists in these areas and meeting the people that live in these situations really will make me think before complaining again. Many of these people have nothing, no food, no shelter, no shoes to wear. However, every where we went and everyone we spoke to had an amazing outlook on life. People smiled, kids laughed and there was a sense of community/family that we can't even imagine over here. No matter what experiences these people had, including being the only family member to survive the Khmer Rouge, or being a child of an agent orange victim, there was a sense of living for the here and now and moving forward instead of living in the past.

2) War is an awful thing. Living in the US, we are lucky that we don't have to see daily the results of years and years of fighting. Everywhere we walked, there were victims of landmines, buildings destroyed, cities being rebuilt.

3) Ancient architects were amazing. I could not believe the structures (primarily Angkor Wat) which were constructed thousands of years ago and are still standing. Why can't we build bridges, to last like that.

4) The scary, fly-covered, non-iced food you see walking though the markets makes for the most amazing, delicious meals. Furthermore, cooking with freshly caught, freshly picked food only enhances the wonderful flavors.

5) Food in Cambodia is amazing!

6) Buddhists have some of the most intricately decorated/designed temples. I could visit one after another (without Dave of course) and never be bored.

7) There is nothing like having a bathroom with a shower separated from the toilet!

8) There is nothing like having a toilet with a toilet seat!

9) I never knew it was possible to fit a family of 5 on a motorbike. Also, don't trust the sidewalks to keep you safe in Asia. The motorbikes drive there as well.

10) We definitely take air conditioning, refrigeration, clean water, jeans, and many of our other daily luxuries for granted. I like to think I no longer do this and am able to recognize all the wonderful things I have in my life.

11) The backpacking community is fabulous. We met so many great people and heard their wonderful experiences.

12) Dave and I really can spend 6 weeks on our own with no one else and still walk away loving each other :)

13) I really can do anything. I put so much time into planning this trip and wasn't sure how it would turn out. It was more wonderful than I ever thought it could be. I hiked waterfalls, held a tiger in my lap, rode an elephant on my own, pet a king cobra, rode in a tuk-tuk, ate on a street corner, and was able to navigate my way through a country where I knew no one, was unfamiliar with the terrain and couldn't even speak the language. I had begun to doubt myself in the past few years and what I was really capable of doing. This trip made me realize that whatever I put my mind to, I will accomplish.

14) The world is a small place. Everything we do impacts people all over the world. We saw how our country hurt these places and now how we are helping them to rebuild. We are not hated everywhere and the only way to help get rid of this stereotype is to go out and visit these places, meet the people, hear their story, and see their way of life and let it impact you in your own personal way.

This is a trip I will never forget. It already feels like it was years ago, however, the lessons I have learned will carry with me forever. I am a better person for what I saw and experienced and am forever grateful that I had the opportunity for this life-changing trip.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Hello Singapore...Again!

We arrived in Singapore after an unexciting flight at 8 at night. Dave and I attempted the train with all of our luggage and then hiked to Chris's palace in Orchard Park. Ahh, it was so nice to be back in luxury! And to see a familiar (and friendly) face again was definitely welcomed! We headed out to Chris's new favorite hawker restaurant which was nearby. The weather was beautiful, so we walked over and sat outside. This meal was delicious (like all our others!). Chris did the ordering and we were glad he did. We started out with fried rice and shrimp. What was interesting was that you were meant to eat the entire shrimp! You take off the head and then eat the rest, shell and all. Both Dave and I tried this once, and once was enough. It was worth it to me to get my hands a bit dirty. We also had Grouper - Hong Kong style. Delish! This was basically a steamed grouper in a really nice sauce. The final dish was black pepper crab (of course, this was delicious as well. sweet with a little bite) . Conversation was great. Many talks about Dave and his future post-MBA, discussions with me about finding a job (and the right job for me).

We stopped on our way home in one of the many food courts and of course had to try some Singaporean dessert. Being the health-conscious person I am, I thought I was ordering the healthiest - fruit ice. Little did I know, there were 5 different types of ice, chocolate syrup, and random jelly-type pieces on the bottom. Mine turned out to be even bigger than Dave's Volcano Ice cream. Serves me right, but it was good. We headed home next - we were exhausted.

It's fair to say that the 6 weeks had finally caught up with us. We rolled out of bed around 10 and headed over to Suntec to have lunch with Chris. Suntec is just a different type of place, only way to describe it. It is 5 large buildings surrounding a huge (Guinness-book?) fountain. Two of the floors are shops - they keep going in all different directions, no rhyme or reason. There are also around 3 different enormous food courts. It was crazy! We met up with Chris and went out for a traditional Chicken and Rice dish (very Singaporean). We topped this off with some type of sweet bun. Both were really good and I was a little disappointed we tried them so late in our trip, I would have liked to have it again.

Chris had to head back to work, so Dave and I decided to enjoy the day and walk down to the harbor to see the Merlion, the symbol of Singapore with is half mermaid, half lion (go figure). It was really hot out, so this was a short stay.

We took some pictures and headed down the river to Clarks Quay a cute area with lots of little restaurants and bars. We kept going in an attempt to find the subway. We walked, and walked and walked until we finally came across the beginning of Chinatown where we were able to grab some tasty Asian iced coffee and asked for directions to the subway (around the corner). A train ride founded us back in Orchard Road to roam the many malls, only to come home with nothing (which was good after everything we had already bought). We were able to rest a bit back at the palace and then we were off again!

This time, we headed back to Suntec and got off at Raffles, home of the original Singapore Sling. How can you come to Singapore without this? The hotel is beautiful, old, colonial style. We took a seat in the Long Bar (the main bar) and were very pleased with our $23 drink (you better be for that price). Yes they were pink, Yes they were fruity, but both men drank theirs with grace and confidence

Our final stop for our trip, and the one that has been haunting us since we first ate in Singapore, was back to the home of the fish head curry - Little India. Our waiter at the Long Bar recommended Muthu's - also in Little India. We had such a great dinner - fried okra, butter chicken, chole, and, of course, Fish Head Curry. It actually was delicious and who knew there was so much meat in the fish head. However, it still was slightly spooky to have your food staring you in the eye as it was served. Dinner was wonderful, company was great, and it was the perfect way to end our 6 week life-changing adventure.

We headed back to the Palace in order to have time to repack our 60 pounds of clothes we had shipped from Vietnam (refer back to Hanoi's blogs) and get all of our stuff ready for our big day. Then - bed time.

Our alarm went off at 4:30 the next morning and Chris was waiting for us with the luggage cart (thank goodness because we had a ton of stuff!). Chris was such a gracious host and we really had a great time with him! We said our goodbyes, got into the taxi, and we were off to the airport.

We got onto the plane without incident and had a very nice trip to Shanghai, including some type of lo mien (I love how all the airlines here feed you food - included in the price of the ticket). We landed in China and started going through customs. The lady that checked us in at Singapore did not give us our connecting ticket and we did not have a copy of our itinerary, therefore, the customs agents were slightly suspicious of us. I almost got through, until I decided to help Dave out. Big mistake. We had to hand over our passports to the agents and wait for a united rep. to come get us. Luckily, this was not a long wait, however, being in China, sans-passport was a slightly disturbing feeling. We headed over to the 1.5 hour line to recheck in our bags and get our tickets and then back through security. We wandered past all the many restaurants and with little knowledge of what anything was (very VERY different than American Chinese restaurants), we ended up eating at Burger King (don't judge).

We boarded the plane and I ended up, once again, in the middle seat. Not only that, I was next to a man wearing a jogging suit which kept rubbing against my arm. It was so irritating. Not only that, United only shows one movie, you don't get to pick which movie you want. But, the 17 hours passed (slowly) and we ended up in O'Hare. Now, from all my times travelling back and forth several years ago to Iowa, the one thing I learned is never to take a United connection through O'Hare. NEVER! I don't think Dave believed me, but not I think they have made him a believer. From the moment we landed, our flight was already delayed. No biggie, but as we waited, and the time got closer to boarding, the flight would get pushed back even more until eventually 3 hours later, we were ready to go. Now, one more thing you have to understand at this point is that we have been out of the country for 6 weeks so we have no phone, no US dollars, and no idea how much a pay phone even costs to call our parents, but we were able to exchange some Singaporean dollars and figure out how to use those antiquated machines they call pay phones

One more uneventful flight and then there were my parents faces, shining back at us at the end of security. What a wonderful feeling to be back on the same ground as them, and back on the same land as our home. Our trip was over, but we now take so many things away from this - all to be addressed in our next, and final blog. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Finally...Koh Tao

So, we've already been home a week now (a month when this is finally published) and are adjusting back to real life, so it's about time we finish our Asia Blog. Quick recap... We had just landed in Southern Thailand after a 8 hours on the night bus...

We took the Lamprayah high-speed catamaran over to the island of Koh Tao. "Turtle Island" as it is translated, is known for diving in the area. When you get on shore, that's all you see, restaurants, small souvenir shops and diving schools/stores everywhere.

We arrived at our hotel, the Coral Grand Dive Resort, and had to wait to check in for a bit. Meanwhile, we sat and talked to the awesome staff there. Seriously, they had to be some of the most crazy/fun people. And they were all very friendly. They even helped talk Dave into canceling our last 3 days in Thailand at an exclusive resort and staying there to continue our diving. But we'll talk about that later. However, since this blog is coming late and we still need to finish up the rest of the trip, we'll keep it short and condensed (if that's possible).

Our room was ok, can't expect much for $18. We signed up for what is called the treasure rooms, basically subsidized rooms for the divers. Not much too it, bed, sink, bathroom, and no hot water. But we would soon find out that you don't really need hot water on Koh Tao. The resort itself is very nice. There is a beautiful pool, small villas for the paying guests, a restaurant (overpriced and not extremely good) and then the beach not even 50 yards from our room. Perfect. Plus, since most of the people visiting the island are divers, they are off on boats all day and the beaches are empty!

Our first day was pretty boring. We ended up sitting through 3 of the scuba videos we had already seen and then passed out on beach chairs. However, for dinner, we went to a restaurant that was recommended by 2 locals called Krua Thai. I am not exaggerating when I say this was one of the best Thai meals we had the entire time in Thailand (except for the fishing village of course). We actually ended up eating here for 3/4 of the meals we had in Koh Tau. The food was delicious, fresh, spicy, but not too spicy, and just delicious. Our favorites were the deep fried fish, the rice and chicken in curry paste, the spicy noodles, and of course the pad thai. All were wonderful.

Our first night in our hotel was not the most relaxing. We got home and while I was standing unpacking, Dave let out an "Oh My G-D". Without first looking, I leaped onto the bed and looked over to see a spider the size of a tennis ball on our wall. This was enormous! I ran to the front desk and no one was there. Since we had no idea if there were poisonous spiders on the island, Dave went down to the staff dorms and brought someone back with him who ended up killing the spider. Turns out it was a coconut tree spider and they live all over the island and are harmless, but my feeling is you can never be too safe. We slept with the lights on that night and soon found out the A/C did not really work either, so we switched rooms the next day to a bug-free room. Much better. Definitely not what you would consider to be high-end, but perfect for what we wanted.

The next day, we met up with our SCUBA instructor John Allen and our new classmate Dale. Both were British and both turned out to be a ton of fun. Dale and his girlfriend had already been traveling over a year at this point (they started in Brazil) and were still planning on traveling through March 2010. Amazing. My favorite story and one that would never happen to me is how they had shown up the night before at the pier in Southern Thailand only for it to turn out to be the wrong pier. For $5, they slept on the top of a fisherman's boat for their ride to Koh Tao. Completely crazy!

John, our instructor, came to Koh Tao 9 years ago to get certified in Scuba. Several years later, he decided to come back and never left. He has been there over 2 years now and has no plans to go home anytime soon (but plans to travel to a new destination at some point and set-up shop there). This is very common in Koh Tao. Many of the instructors happened here the same way. They came on vacation and never left. 700 dives later and they were still going. Dave and I almost got sucked into this thinking we could stay forever, but with a mortgage, rent, and Cody, we knew this wouldn't be a reality.

We were fitted for our equipment and told to meet back later in the day for Dave's pool dives. John was so extremely nice when we came back. Since I had already done the pool dives, I spent most of the afternoon sunbathing on the side. However, he allowed me to come join during the last dive so that I could remind myself how to get neutral buoyancy. Very helpful. (author change). The pool dive was fun- but you seriously should never go in a pool with a mask on. You see way to much! Gross little bits floating everywhere. Band-aids. Things that don't look like anything. Way gross. But, I enjoyed success and was soon ready for the real thing.

Here comes the condensed version. Over the 2 days we did 4 dives around Koh Tao. We enjoyed it so much, we took the money we were going to spend at a nice resort on Koh Samui and signed up for the Advanced Open Water Diving Class. That was 5 more dives for a total of 9. The first 4 were very cool- although the last dive was the one where I (Dave) drank way too much coffee before the dive, and had a caffeine anxiety attack underwater. It was really terrifying- I was chewing my regulator and spent the first 15 minutes thinking about shooting to the top. But, I didn't want to ruin the dive for Carrie, and I knew that it was just in my mind, so I fought thru it. The diving was awesome- very different from our 1 dive in the Carribean. The Carribean had tons of floral and plants- this was a lot of coral. The coral is almost like an oasis underwater- where there is coral, there is a ton of everything (hey polluters- remember this when you mess with the ocean). Our instructor John took us on some dives that were around more sand- those you really had to look hard to find life. The fish hid in the sand and the shrimp dug holes- but it was fun- almost like a scavenger hunt.

At the end of the Open Water Course, we got the opportunity to purchase a video that was made during our fourth dive. Fun stuff- dancing under water when we had to take our mask off and put it back on, lots of waving (hard to do much else underwater). Carrie and I went in with the intention of not buying it- but it was too compelling, since it was our first real scuba diving experience.

Our next 5 dives were to obtain the Advanced Open Water certification. You are required to do a navigation dive (I'm not very good with a compass), a deep dive (30 meters down!), and 3 dives that you select. We took underwater photography, wreck diving, and night diving. The deep dive was not scary- you hardly notice that you are down that far. You just need to be even more careful about going back up. Carrie and I will eventually purchase dive computers so we are certain not to mess up our nitrogen levels! The underwater photography was ok- our pics came out well, but the CD did not burn correctly so there is no proof that my pictures were better than Carrie's.

The wreck dive was awesome! A drunk captain of a competing dive company had actually sunk his boat(no passengers on it) a month before. So we dove around the wreck and saw how life had already started to take it over. It definitely made us think that the wreck diving up here in Massachusetts must be amazing!

The night dive was even cooler. Carrie was completely terrified before- to the point where she almost didn't want to go. Fortunately, we started into the water with just a hint of daylight left. We had underwater torches (flash lights- seriously, you should know that!) that we could aim at our depth/air gauge to make them glow underwater. We had to do a underwater navigation thing at night, but then explored. We saw lots of different things- the 3 most memorable were the 2 baby squid just floating in a random spot, and when we turned off our torches and were in complete darkness. a) it wasn't as scary as you think b) when you wave your arm in the water, you see bio-luminescence (think fireflies underwater). The 3rd was the various sting rays we saw ducking under different corals. They were magnificent- really an elegant fish. Can't really explain it- go diving and see for yourself.

Other notables from Koh Tao:

- Internet costs twice as much (hence no blogs).
- Mangosteens are the greatest fruit ever. $1 for 1 kilo. ($9 for 4 pieces here in Boston)
- Krua Thai is the best restaurant on the island. Go there. A lot.
- The tide goes really really high (literally under your feet at the sand joints, and then boats on the sand during low tide)
- Being a stray dog in Koh Tao is not that bad.
- There's nothing like having breakfast on the beach.
- Giant snails are not as gross as tiny snails.
- The beach is now boring if you can't go at least 10 meters under the water
- Deep fried fish is good.
- So is deep fried sun-dried beef.
- Fried pancakes with chocolate and bananas are good at night!
- Everything about Koh Tao was amazing and crazy!

On our last day, we took the same catamaran to Koh Samui, and got a free transfer over to the airport. It took a bit to check in, but afterwards we experienced maybe the greatest airport in the world. We walked from the check in area thru an outdoor shopping area where we stopped for Pad Thai lunch. Then we got to the international gate. They had free food, free juice, free internet. Check out the pics.
Then onto Singapore...