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...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Non-Asia Post

Never thought I would see this. Stay tuned for a massive Koh Tao blog with cool underwater pics.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Our day in Bangkok

Our day with Tong was so amazing yesterday, we decided to sign up with one of her other tour guides to show us around Bangkok the next day. There were several reasons for this. First, we had limited time in Bangkok and wanted to make sure we were able to see everything we wanted to see. Secondly, we wanted some background information on the places we were going to. Thirdly, we have heard stories about the tuk-tuk drivers in Bangkok and have learned you either pay way too much for them, or you end up spending half your day in jewelry and tailor shops that offer the drivers petrol coupons. So, we figured this we way net out money-wise, but make out on every other front.

Our day started with a delicious breakfast of course. Dave had his usual, pancakes and I had eggs and toast. Only thing is, after being in SE Asia, I don't think I can eat eggs anymore, so I mostly had toast.

We were met in the lobby by our guide, Net. It was a perfect day. The sun wasn't out, the sky was gray, but it was also nice and cool and not stifling like we've heard it can get. We got into a tuk-tuk that of course first tried to charge us 200 baht, but she immediately got it down to 60 (savings 140 righ there!). Our first stop was the Grand Palace and the Temple with the Emerald Buddha. When we arrived, we made it in time to see the changing of the guards. It wasn't nearly as impressive as the changing of the guards in London, but still fun. We immediately set off to see the Wat, as 3 Chinese tour buses had just arrived and we wanted to get their before the crowd. The temple was really amazing (being that it was in the Grand Palace and purely for the purposes of the King). The architechture was beautiful and everything was decorated using mosaic mirrored tiles. Net gave us a lot of background on the Wat which was really helpful while walking around. We got some great pictures and then made our way inside to see the Emerald Buddha. The statue was found somewhat recently. It had been moved between Thailand and Laos and during one of the recent moves, it was dropped and the cement that covered it fell off. Of course it is not Emerald, but Jade. Apparently emerald sounds much more regal, but I personally think Jade doesn't sound too bad.

Next up was the Grand Palace. This is no longer used by the King and Queen, except for ceremonies (and the King stays there 1 night right before the coronation). There are several rooms you are allowed to go through which we did. The place is really nice, but Dave is definitely towards the end of his touring days, so we moved pretty quickly.

We walked to the pier and headed over via a 3 baht ($0.09) ferry to Wat Arun. This area used to be the capital of Thailand for 16 years, so you can imagine there wasn't enough time to build up the area. But there is a beautiful, intricately decorated Wat which we had the chance to walk around and admire. Best thing is there are cardboard cut-outs of traditional Thai dress, enticing visitors to come take a picture. No one is around, but when you go to take the pic, someone magically appears asking for 40 baht. Luckily we didn't get caught in the trap (but you know I wanted that picture!).

Next stop, the large Reclining Buddha. Now, large is an understatement here. This thing is HUGE! The entire Wat is filled with this Buddha statue which has been covered in gold paint. When you first walk in the door, all you can see is the Buddha's eye. As you walk a little more, you can see how far back it really goes. It is really unbelievable and even more surprisingly, it is only the 3rd largest in Thailand (more great information provided by Net).

Our next stop is a restaurant suggested by Tong (our tour guide from yesterday since she knew how much we liked food). We had the option of having Tong order for us via cell phone, or we could do the ordering ourselves. Since she had fed us so well the day before, we decided to go with option number 1. This was definitely the right choice. We had so much food ordered for us!

We had so much food, and of course it was all eaten. We had fried chicken wings, fried spring rolls, fresh spring rolls, Tom Yum soup with prawns (spicy), some other shrimp dish and lemongrass juice. It was so delicious, a little spicy (I started feeling midly dizzy at one point) but so good. We were expecting it to cost around 2000 baht, but was shocked when our check for 400 baht (less than $15) was put in front of us. Although we were full from the meal, it wasn't complete without our coffee in a bag. We have figured out what was so good about it. They use condensed milk in the coffee and it is good!

We hopped into a cab and headed over to the Golden Mount. This is exactly what it sounds like. It is a Wat on the top of a small mountain. The temple was nice, but the view from the top is amazing. You can see all of Bangkok. On our way up, we all rang one of the many bells lining the path three times for good luck. So we're keeping our fingers crossed. We took some really nice pics, and then headed back to the hotel.

Our last stop was the Teak House. This was a house that served as the kings palace for 5 or so years. It was entirely made of Teak, with no nails (just teak pegs). Pretty impressive- but no pics allowed, so you will just have to go! We had a short time in the afternoon before our next adventure.

When we got to the hotel, we said goodbye to Net and thanked her for a great day. We really learned so much from her and were so thankful to have her help us around town.

So, as you can all imagine (and have seen by the pics), 5 weeks is alot of time. During our night adventures around our hotel, Dave and I found a hair stylist that does hair for 100 baht (less than $5). We were both looking a little ragged and decided (of course after much persuasion from Dave) to get our hair cut. Dave asked for a trim and got a bit of a buzz cut (looks great though) and I paid an extra 50 baht for a shampoo which included a long scalp massage. Heaven! The hair cut was fine and neither of us had any complaints.

We returned to the room and packed up to leave Bangkok and headed to the hotel restaurant so that we could watch our bags. Big surprise what we ate... Pad Thai and Pad See Ew. When we finished, we grabbed our bags, headed to the travel agent and I went on a search for coconut pancakes. No luck, but I did find an old woman with awful teeth selling mango and sticky rice. By the time I realized that I didn't want to eat there, I had already made eye contact with the lady and got her to stand up. Therefore, I paid the 20 baht, got my mango and sticky rice and headed back to Dave. Luckily it was delish. I topped this off with watermelon from the fruit stand (after I almost bought Dave more mangoes- he wanted mangosteens, which he claims is the greatest fruit in the whole world).

Then, the adventure began. At this point, we had already waited a half hour and finally a man came to collect us for our night train and ferry to Koh Tao. We had to walk, with all of our luggage, to the main street. This would not have been a problem except that we had waited for so long and could have hired a taxi for $1. We got to the main location for the tour group and waited in another line for our ticket and received a number. When we got to our bus, we realized how lucky our wait actually was. We ended up on the top floor in the exit row, so we had the banister in front of us for our feet. Not bad when you're about to embark on a 8 hour bus ride. We watched Batman, but with no sound and we couldn't read becuase the light wouldn't work, so once the movie was asleep, we went to bed. A quick bus stop was made along the way around 1 am and we witnessed buffet-style food covered with flies, and then finished the next 2 hours.

We ended in Southern Thailand at the pier at 5, waited 2 hours for the ferry and then headed over to Koh Tao. We were so excited! Not only was this the beginning of our relaxing part of our vacation, this is also where we were finally going to become PADI Certified Open Water Divers!

Monday, July 13, 2009

The coolest fish farm ever

If you read the title of this post, you might be mislead. The fishing village we went to did catch fish, but we also saw mussel farms, clam farms, cockle farms, and people catching shrimp. It started at our boat owner's house. He was a cockle farmer that got involved in tourism when a bird that does not exist here migrated from Malaysia and ate all his cockles. Apparently it takes up to a year to rebuild the 'crop,' so he had to do something to avoid the alternative- travelling to Malaysia to work on a cockle farm there.

Moving along, we went down some tributaries to reach the Gulf of Thailand. We were travelling at low tide, during high tide you can't see really any part of the farms. There is apparently good swimming, water skiing, etc. But for us we saw lots of mud. The first thing we did was turn down a channel on the side that went thru the forest. Carrie and I didn't really know what to expect- we had been asked how much food we wanted to get to feed the monkeys, and went with 400 baht (but should have gone with like 800). As we went down the channel, our tour guide Tong and our captain started hollering. We didn't see much at first, but then 1, then 2 then 10, then 20 then 40 monkeys appeared. It was absolutely amazing. We threw them Rambuttan, Bananas, and Watermelon. There ultimately were 4 tribes of monkeys that came to us as we went down the channel. So cool. In a couple of cases there were rival packs across the river, but when there wasn't the monkeys would swim to the other shore to get food from us. The watermelon floated, and the monkeys would swim after that. A couple climbed on the boat (keep feeding and don't pet!), and one got on the roof. It was jaw dropping. Many were carrying their babies with them, and we made an effort to aim a lot of our throws towards Mommy. We also caused a few fights (one monkey bit a Mommy that was holding her baby), and we saw 2 others try to drown one very frightened monkey. Tong told us how she once saw 2 dogs tear another monkey in half- thank g-d we didn't see that! I would have been traumatized for life. The fights were scary enough (we tried to break them up by pelting the offender with bananas which usually distracted all parties).

At one point, a rival pack followed us down river. It was interesting to see them not intrude on the others territory (except when we accidentally threw food in no-mans-land). Unfortunately, we ran out of food. As I said- don't be cheap, spend the money! Enjoy the pics...

After feeding the monkeys, we took a cruise around the farms. When I say farms- it is hard to understand. These farms are in the actual Gulf of Thailand. If you go during high-tide, you can barely see the bamboo posts used to mark the farms (and catch mussels!). However, we went during low tide so we saw people sitting on boards and digging thru mud to find cockles. This must be one of the most serene places we've been. It goes on for miles and miles- and there is only an occasional farm worker or boat. It is still completely unknown to most tourists and is really special. Just straight up peaceful.

We ate lunch in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand too. We went up on our farmers house (they all build a second house on their farm land where someone stays so people don't come at night and steal their cockles, mussels, or clams, etc). On the house (made almost completely of bamboo except the parts that support it over the ground) we found an awesome meal. This meals awesomeness was matched by its spiciness! We had tamarind soup (so damn spicy), fried catfish in shrimp paste (looks gross, tastes great, calms down spice), prawns, crab, and grilled fish with garlic. It was all so good- Tong had figured out we like to eat, so she got us a meal for 4 (we almost ate it all...!).

As the food coma approached, we headed back towards our starting point. Back in the car, we hit traffic for awhile (Bangkok = traffic). Once we got home, we gave Tong a hug, and bid her farewell. We will definitely be seeing her again, since Thailand is awesome and we are certain to come back.

That evening we walked around Khosan Road. But this time, we walked around the real Khosan Road. The part we walked in the previous blog was in fact, just a nice road near Khosan Road. Khosan Road is a loud busy road that is very very touristy. Not much to mention, except Carrie got a bag she had seen people carrying a few weeks before. We liked our little street better, so headed back that way and chose a restaurant that had our favorite Sun-dried Crispy Beef appetizer. A Pad Thai and something else for dinner (maybe a curry? or Pad See Ew) and 2 large Chang Beers left us full and ready for bed.