Sunday, August 10, 2014

Our Thailand Adventure

Our summer trip to Thailand was an adventure in every sense of the word! It was a unique blend of touring and vacationing in a part of the world that both of us were so unfamiliar with. It was the first time for both of us to Asia and certainly won't be our last! We made so many memories on this trip and learned so much about ourselves as well as this new corner of the world. 

Getting There
My dad has spent a lot of time in Asia for work and had been to Thailand before, so we convinced him to come with us for the first part of our trip (okay, it didn't take too much convincing) so he could help us navigate the chaos of Bangkok. And we are SO glad he did. My dad is the ultimate traveler and I don't think we would have survived in that city without him! My little brother Scott had some time off work and came with us for a few days, too. 
We left Salt Lake and had a layover in Minneapolis, where we had fun hearing all of my dad's stories of his days working as a ramp rat there in the 1970's. Nick and I were also particularly excited to ride on our first 747! The wait was well worth it and we were lucky enough to get some awesome seats thanks to my dad's employee perks. 

Not hard to see that it was a pretty awesome 10+ hour flight ;)

We had a few hours to layover at the Tokyo Narita airport. We saw some awesome views of the Japanese landscape flying in and had fun exploring the airport. My dad likes to refer to Japan as "the Switzerland of Asia" because everything is so neat, clean, and organized. 

We got into Bangkok late at night and took a taxi into the city. It was HOT and HUMID. I'm pretty accustomed to heat with living in Arizona, but humidity is a whole other story! My dad found us rooms at the Adelphi Hotel where he had stayed a few years before. The rooms were great and it was in a really convenient part of town just a few blocks away from a sky metro stop. We got a good night's sleep before our first long day in the city. 

Day 1 
We spent our first day in Bangkok seeing all the major tourist sites and started out with a river tour instead of taking a taxi downtown. It was definitely a unique way to see parts of the city that were off the beaten path as well as living conditions that are hard to fathom without seeing them. It was my first glimpse into the extreme dichotomy that exists in this city between uber rich and uber poor. 

Our first stop was Wat Arun in the older part of the city. 

I didn't realize until we got up close to the temple how intricate the exterior design is. It's covered in small, colorful pieces of porcelain and seashells in different floral and geometrical designs. It's really incredible! 

We climbed to the tip via an insanely steep staircase that definitely wouldn't pass code in the U.S. ;)
But from the top we were able to see some pretty awesome views of the city. 

Oh, and did I mention it was HOT? I don't think the sweat stopped pouring down my face until we got back to the hotel that night. Haha. 

From Wat Arun, we crossed the river on the ferry again and headed over to the Grand Palace, which is the more modern religious and royal center of the city. The king doesn't live here anymore, but it's still used for important events. We took a guided tour of the grounds and learned so many neat things about its history and about Buddhism in general. Out of respect, they ask visitors to cover their legs so the men wear rented pants and the women wear skirts. I thought mine looked really cool but again... the heat was killer! Luckily they had umbrellas on hand for us to use for some shade. 

Every part of this place was just gleaming with gold and jewels. It's amazing! And also hard to fathom the number of man hours that went into constructing and designing this place. 

From the Grand Palace we took a tuk tuk over to the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, or Wat Pho. We learned quickly that there are temples everywhere for different "kinds" of Buddhas... emerald Buddhas, reclining Buddhas, giant Buddhas, etc. 
 This Buddha was certainly an impressive sight, but getting a picture with it proved to be a difficult task with all of the other tourists fighting for space. This was Nick's reaction. Haha. 

At a different part of the grounds we walked into another temple where some Buddhist monks were doing their evening chants. 
After a long day of sightseeing we sat down to a dinner of delicious Thai food - mango sticky rice and massaman curry quickly became two of my favorite dishes. We avoided street food at all costs for fear of the havoc it could wreak on our stomachs. Haha. And in all honesty, the smell of street food wasn't all that enticing either. 

And before turning into the hotel for the night, all four of us got traditional Thai massages in the signature jumpsuits, which I didn't get a picture of (darn it!). At times we thought our limbs might become dislocated, but soon learned that Thai massages are surprisingly relaxing. 

Day 2
My dad set up a city bike tour of for all of us for our second day in the city with Follow Me tours. He's never been a sit-and-relax type of traveler, and that's one thing that I love so much about him! This bike tour was intense in the beating sun throughout the entire afternoon into the early evening, but we wouldn't have seen the parts of the city that we did without doing it. 

We biked through a good portion of the city and saw A LOT of sites. Believe it or not, there's even a Chinatown in Bangkok. We toured that along with one of the largest flower markets in the city, and stopped at a few other temples on the way. We saw some really beautiful sights like this:


But also some really meager circumstances like this:

At times the smells of the city were almost intolerable. In parts of the city like this there are just open sewage rivers and trash EVERYWHERE. Mix that with 90% humidity and 90 degree temps and it's a recipe for disaster. I'm not kidding when I say that my gag reflexes almost took over a few times! Luckily, no throw up incidents for any of us, but we did come away from it with an even stronger appreciation for the life we live back home. 

Back at the headquarters of our tour group they had a free fish foot spa for everyone to try out. It was my first time doing something like this and it definitely took some getting used to! It wasn't painful by any means, but it's definitely not for those who have ticklish feet! Surprisingly my dad and Nick were the worst and sitting through it. I laughed for a solid 10 minutes watching them try to sit still. 

On our way home we checked out the ritzy shopping malls of Bangkok (where we also ate dinner) and strolled around some of the main streets by our hotel. Let's just say I now understand that sex tourism is a legitimate industry in Thailand and it's everywhere you look on the street! Something you almost have to see to believe, but I'm glad that we had a good sense of humor about it. Because... wow! 
By the end of the day we were all beat. And I think we lost about five pounds in sweat. So of course we rewarded ourselves with another massage before calling it a night. 

Day 3
Sadly, my dad and Scott had to head home after our two days in Bangkok, but the trip wouldn't have been the same without them! As they left for the airport, Nick and I headed to the other regional airport in town for our flight to Phuket. 

We had some awesome views of Bangkok flying out of the city, of the river delta to the south of Bangkok, and then finally towards the end of the flight we started seeing the famous Thai island that jut out of the sea. 

Once we landed in Phuket, we took a private car up to our resort in Khao Lak. In doing my research for places to stay on our "vacation" part of the trip, I discovered that American-brand hotels are WAY cheaper in Thailand than they are anywhere else in the world. Plus it helped that we were traveling in the low season. I found a reservation at the J.W. Marriott in Khao Lak for about the same price of what you'd pay for some decent airport hotels in the bigger U.S. cities. It was a steal that we couldn't pass up, and it was definitely one of our favorite parts of the trip.

 Everything about this place was amazing from the minute we stepped into the front lobby. 

 The hotel staff was incredibly friendly and accommodating--they even sent some special treats to our room that night for our "honeymoon." Because you can still have a honeymoon when you've been married for five years, right? ;)

Days 4 - 8
Khao Lak was were we finally got to relax an unwind and really not have an agenda all day. After months of board prep and actually taking boards, Nick had been looking forward to this for a loooong time. 
We got to eat breakfast every morning at the beachside restaurant with an amazing buffet

 The servers were so nice and got to know us by name. By the end of our stay it was sad to have to say goodbye to them! The Thai people are so kind and loving. 

We spent a lot of time at the beach and the pool. Which, by the way, this hotel has THE largest pool in Southeast Asia. It winds through the entirety of the hotel grounds and all 1st floor rooms have walkout access to it. Pretty incredible! 

We got massages almost everyday from the locals who set up their shacks just a short walk off of the private hotel beach. $12 for a one-hour massage AND waves crashing in the background? Can't beat it! 

There were also several local restaurants that set up shop just a short walk down the beach. The hotel restaurants were pretty pricey, so for lunch and dinner we dined on local fare like fresh coconut shakes, mango sticky rice, and of course, massaman curry. Delicious!

We also learned that this area in Khao Lak was one of the hardest hit in Thailand in the '04 tsunami. In fact, the very resort we were staying at used to be a Sofitel and it was completely demolished. Dozens of tourists died here and it was left abandoned for several years before Marriott purchased and renovated the property. There are still resorts down the beach that are deserted. It was pretty sobering to think about, but also amazing that they've turned it into such a beautiful place today. 

On our last day at the resort my sweet husband set up a cooking class for me since he knows how much I love to cook! We had the nicest instructor and made some delicious dishes for lunch. 

We really felt like we could have stayed at this place forever! We can't wait to come back again, and next time for more than four days. We loved every minute at this resort!

Day 9
From Khao Lak, we hired a private car to drive us over to Krabi, which is basically across the bay from Phuket, down to a little island called Koh Lanta. I think in total the drive was about 3-4 hours. My brother Aaron had been here before and recommended it as a must-see and true Thailand experience. The drive was beautiful and we got to see lots of jungle! We didn't really realize just how remote this place was and were pretty shocked to see that the only access by car is via ferry! No bridges to this island. 

We didn't know much about Koh Lanta and booked a little bungalow-type room based on some TripAdvisor recommendations. It was great for what it was, but coming from a 5-star resort it was a bit of a shock. Haha. In hindsight, we realized we should have saved the best for last ;) We soon learned that Koh Lanta takes the "laid back" lifestyle to the extreme. If you thought the Hawaiian islands were pretty chill, this place is about 10x that! On the very last day we couldn't even get the hotel owner to come figure out why we didn't have running water. Haha.  Luckily we did have an air conditioning unit in the room along with a TV that had about 10 Thai channels. Since we were traveling in the low season, this resort was pretty empty, but we could see how in the high season it would be a great place to stay!

Rental cars don't exist on Koh Lanta and it's a bit too big to get around just on normal bikes, so we opted to rent a scooter for the few days we were going to be there. Since the part of the island we were staying on was kind of void of tourists because of the low season, we decided to drive around to see what else we could find to do. We had gone about 10-15 minutes when we passed a Seven Eleven store with a young couple walking in and I said to Nick, "Hey, they look American!" Haha. So we stopped and walked in to go talk to them. 
As it turns out, they were German! But they spoke decent English and we became quick friends because they, too had just gotten there and were looking for things to do. Benny and Hannah became our island buddies and we spent the rest of our time there with them. One of my favorite parts of traveling is meeting new friends from all corners of the world! 

We spent the rest of the afternoon cruising around the island with them, and became even more shocked at just how remote this place was. I mean, check out these gas pumps! 

What was also really interesting and something we didn't realize is the heavy Muslim influence in this part of the country. Because it's so close to the Malaysian border it has really big Islamic populations and most of the men and women here wear full Islamic clothing. 
It was really eye opening to drive past communities of roadside shacks with families out and about who really don't have much more than a few belongings but still look so happy and content with life. Makes you realize how easy it is to get caught up into the materialistic life we live in every day in the Western world. 

Day 10
We had been wanting to book an island tour of some sort so the next day we found one with Benny and Hannah that took us through some mangrove forests and out to the bay on a kayak tour. And a legitimate mangrove forest it was. Wow! We had to walk a ways in on these planks to get to the place where the boat left. 

We lucked out with a sunny, storm-free day that made the water look so blue it almost didn't seem real! 

The islands there are so beautiful with their steep cliffs and bright green vegetation. We kayaked around a few smaller islands and went into a few caves.

Then we stopped at a small beach that's really only accessible by boat. Pictures don't really do it justice, but I found that I almost had to pinch myself to remember that it was real life! It's such a beautiful part of the world. 

And of course we couldn't leave without our traditional kissing selfie. And it's not a beach break without a Coke! Or as Nick likes to call it, "universal happiness." Haha. 

On our way back through the mangroves we had monkeys visit our boat! They're practically trained to jump on because the tour guides always give them fruit. They look cute and little, but they're actually kind of mean and they SMELL! I mean, they are wild animals so I guess that makes sense. But they're funny little creatures and I had no idea that they were such good swimmers! 

After our tour they made us a delicious plate of fried rice. Yum. I'm actually still quite amazed that we made it through two weeks in Thailand with no stomach issues, considering most of the food we ate was cooked through the back door of a shack. Haha. 

This pretty much sums up the rest of our day. We had nothing on our agenda except for exploring the island on our scooters! You know it's a good vacation when doing nothing starts to feel normal ;)

 Day 11
In Thailand, breakfast doesn't exists as we know it. Traditional Thai breakfast is salty, dinner-like dishes, and not like bacon and eggs. We're talking curry, fish, soup, rice, chicken, etc. Needless to say, we were dying for some "real" breakfast food so you can imagine how happy we were to find the Nang Sabai German Bakery on our morning scooter drive. Pretzel rolls and Nutella? Heaven! The woman who owned the restaurant talked to Benny and Hannah in German for a while and gave us all some good insider tips of things to do and see that day. 

After breakfast is when our interesting chain of events happened. Looking back, I have no doubt that whatever happened that morning was definitely divine intervention because we're still here to tell the story today!
Nick and I headed back to our room for what we thought would be a quick clothing change for a hike we wanted to go on later that day. It took us a little longer than expected, and our families Skyped us right as we were leaving the room, which pushed us back even further. THEN as we were driving away from the resort we realized that our scooter had a flat tire. So we had to figure out a place to get it fixed and then wait to have it fixed. I just remember thinking, "Oh my goodness, why does this morning seem to be such a struggle to just get the day started?!" By the time we made it back to Benny and Hannah's resort we were at least 1.5 hours late and were finally ready to start our day. 
We headed out on the same road we had been on the night before and we weren't going particularly fast. As a side note, we weren't wearing helmets either because I don't think helmets exists on this island, either! I mean, this is the place where you see entire families of four on one scooter, so road safety is not first priority. That being said, the ONE road on the island was paved, but didn't have posted speed limits and we noticed that cars and construction vehicles would go pretty fast in some areas. 
As we rounded the inside of this particular blind curve headed toward the other side of the island, Benny and Hannah were in front of us and made it around just fine, but as we leaned into the curve I could feel our scooter going down just like it was in slow motion. We both hit the ground and skidded across to the opposite side of the road like we were on ice (lanes in Thailand are opposite of the U.S.). We were a little shaken up but could stand up right after. But looking back, it was an absolute miracle that there wasn't another car or truck rounding that curve at the same time we went down because it would have been MUCH worse for us as we skidded into the other lane of traffic. Considering we didn't even have helmets on, I'm amazed that we didn't have anything more serious than bruises and road rash. And grateful, too, because the closest hospital was about two hours away so we would have been out of luck if we needed any type of emergency care!
We realized after the fact that although we could have been going a little slower, the main culprits behind the accident were our bald tires and the hot pavement in the middle of the day that made the traction even worse. Because the night before, that turn had been no problem for us. I know that the weird events of that morning definitely weren't coincidence because the timing of the accident worked out to leave us with what I think was pretty minimal consequences. 
Somehow during the fall Nick managed to practically turn around before we hit the road to try and break my fall for me, so his entire right side was scraped up, especially his knees and legs. And I caught myself with my left wrist and then skidded across the road on my forearms and knees. Ouch. At first I didn't know if my wrist was broken or not, but after a few Skype calls we figured it was probably just a bad sprain. Nick found supplies at the local pharmacy to doctor me up for the time being, but I of course had to document my battle wounds sans bandages the next morning. 

Nick's favorite wound was the heard-shaped blister on his left hand. Haha. 

Benny and Hannah were our lifesavers that day - they brought us back to their room and used supplies from their first aid kit on me while Nick found the pharmacy. We used their internet and their air conditioning for a few hours while we got our composure. But we didn't want this accident to ruin the last  day we had on the island so even though we couldn't really do everything as planned, we still got out to see some other parts of the island together that night. 

We made our way over to the eastern side of the island that's more remote and less touristy. 

On the recommendation of the German Bakery owner, we headed to her friend Patou's restaurant on the very edge of town called Caoutchouc. 
Patou is an eccentric French expat who moved here for a slower lifestyle. He's an amazing chef and his menu changes every day based on what fresh ingredients he has on hand. We were the only four people who showed up that night and as he was cooking dinner the power on the entire side of the island went out! It turned out to be one of the most memorable dinners we've had though because it was all by candle light. And the chicken pasta dish he made was outstanding. The four of us ate while we had great conversation with Patou and sadly, I didn't get a picture of all of us because it was so dark! 

We made made the drive back through the back forest roads by moonlight since all the power was still out. It was another one of those "pinch me" moments when you realize that your'e actually halfway across the world, on an island in the middle of nowhere with your best friend, and you just had one of the most memorable dinners of your life with great new friends from all over the world. 

Day 12 & 13:
Though at first we were a bit unimpressed with it, we left Koh Lanta the next day with some great memories and a resolve to go back one day... just in the high season instead. Haha.  We took a shared van up to the main city of Krabi and then over to the town of AoNang. We spent the entire drive with 3 other couples from the U.K., Germany, and France who were all world travelers and had incredible stories.
Our stay in Krabi was supposed to involve another island tour over to Maya Bay and the famous "James Bond Island," however, our road rash wasn't conducive to doing much of anything, since it was painful to even walk up the stairs. Knees and elbows are probably the worst places to have scabs! Plus, I knew that hours in the sun would only lead to worse scars, so we decided to spend our last two days laying low. We figured that leaving something undone just gives us a reason to come back to Thailand in a few years! ;)

AoNang is a smaller beachside town that is still pretty touristy but has some amazing coastal views. We enjoyed our fair share of Coke and passionfruit popsicles on the beach. 

And even REAL Bon Bons! haha. 
There were massage huts everywhere you looked, and we took full advantage of foot and leg massages that helped take our minds off the road rash. 

The beach was amazing because the sand was all seashells! I really had never seen a beach like this in my life and I became a little obsessive about finding the perfect shells to take home with me. 

This was the corner Seven Eleven by our hotel... which was apparently the hangout for the local family of dogs, too. You know you're dog lovers when you even take pictures of the gross stray dogs in third world countries. Haha. 
When we weren't out walking around town, we took full advantage of the hotel pool. We stayed at the Mercure Krabi Deevana and it was a great place to top off our stay in Thailand. 

Day 14:
After two weeks of traveling plus a solid dose of road rash, we were SO ready to get on the plane to go home! Except it was more like three planes and two layovers. Ha. We took Thai Airways from Krabi to Bangkok, where we had an overnight layover. 
And because we only had a few hours to sleep, we found an uber budget airport hotel for a grand total of about $30. Given the price, we weren't going to complain to the front desk about two twin beds so Nick got crafty and took matters into his own hands. Haha. 

Day 15: 
We left our hotel in Bangkok at about 4 am to board the flight to Tokyo. No matter where I am in the world, getting on board a Delta plane just always feels like home. And thankfully, we got the nice seats again so we could lay down with our pitiful bandaged limbs. Haha. 
We love traveling. And I don't think we'll ever get enough of it. We made so many great memories on this trip and grew so much together. But one of the best parts of going somewhere is knowing you can go home again to familiarity with a new appreciation for all the things you didn't realize you would miss so much till you didn't have them at your fingertips. That's exactly how we felt, and coming back to American soil was a great feeling!