March 25, 2012

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2012-03-25

Filed under: General — mmrobins @ 4:00 am
  • Back in Portland after a few weeks in Thailand. Jet lagged. #
  • I can't seem to get back on a normal sleep schedule since coming home from Thailand. #jetlag #
March 17, 2012

San Francisco as a Gateway Leg

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 3:44 am

Our return flight from Thailand didn’t have any good connecting flights to Portland – they all involved 6+ hour layovers. So we found that it didn’t cost extra to just take a few days in what’s considered the gateway city of our international flight, so we had a couple days to see the sights of San Francisco.

We stayed at the Green Tortoise Hostel in the North Beach area of San Francisco. I felt a little out of place there since it very much has a party backpacker vibe that a baby seemed out of place in. It worked out and there was one other family with kids we met staying there, but we were definitely the odd ones out amid the early 20′s crowd that was there for clubbing, partying and drinking. Fortunately the rooms were relatively quiet so that wasn’t a problem for sleeping. Unfortunately Geneveve’s internal clock had her waking up at between 2 and 4 AM for a couple hours both nights, requiring us to entertain her for a few hours and not getting much sleep overall. There was a dry sauna in the hostel, so that was a nice activity to kill time in the early morning.

Most of the stuff we planned to do was outside, but it was nasty, rainy weather most of the time so we had to find indoor activities. So we went to Gold Gate Park and the California Academy of Sciences. It’s like a science museum / zoo / aquarium all rolled into one big building. It was pretty cool that they had an indoor coral reef and rainforest. We probably spent 7 hours there seeing most things, including some time for Geneveve to play in the kids area.

The next day the weather was a little better, so we went with a small group from the hostel to a beer garden for Saint Patrick’s Day. The plan was to show up early, get free wrist bands, and go see the parade, but the hostel group just ended up staying at the bar, so we left them to see the parade. It turns out that parades are more fun with a baby. Geneveve love getting the candy and small plastic toys that get thrown, and seemed to enjoy watching the vehicles and costumes go by too. She got a kazoo in the shape of a duck bill that kept her happy for a couple hours after. Our final activity was getting food in the Little Italy area, and that was delicious, although I was suffering sticker shock of how much everything cost compared to Thailand.

Now we’re back home with Sunday to recover a bit before going back to work on Monday. Hopefully we can get back on a normal sleep schedule.

March 16, 2012

Back to Bangkok Then Home

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 3:33 am

After leaving Ko Lanta we caught the ferry to Krabi for a night so we could catch the early morning flight to Bangkok the next day. There really isn’t much of note as far as tourism in Krabi, so we meant to take a day trip over Railay to see the rock climbing scene that my brother was at during his stay in Thailand, but we ended up taking an afternoon nap instead.

One thing Krabi does have is a really nice night market for food. Lots of places have night markets, but they tend to be overwhelming and often full of the usual junk and trinkets that I don’t care about, but Krabi felt like it was setup more for the locals and just has lots of good, uncrowded, inexpensive food vendors. We ate noodle dishes, mango and sticky rice, a curry, some dessert pancakes, beer, coconut shakes and probably stuff that I forgot about in my food coma.

Our flight back into Bangkok got us there about 8 hours before our flight back home, so we stashed our luggage at the airport and took the train back into the city to get lunch and get one last Thai massage from our favorite massage place. I’m really going to miss those awesome, inexpensive, frequent massages back home.

For me the flight back felt shorter than the flight there, mostly because I slept more during the long leg between Hong Kong and San Francisco and because we broke up the last leg of the flight from San Fran to Portland. Which means that we’re now in San Francisco for a couple days to see the city and try to readjust to the time zone. Funny story about time zones – our flight from Hong Kong left at 1 am on the 16th, but arrived in San Francisco at around 7pm on the 15th. However, the itinerary fails to mention that the arrival date is earlier than the departure date, so Kim booked us a hostel for the 16th but not the 15th. Fortunately, the hostel had one open room left when we arrived, so we were able to stay both nights there and have one more day to see the city than we planned.

March 14, 2012

Ko Lanta – Let’s Relax

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 8:35 pm

Ko Lanta is a pretty big island, so it was nice that the place we booked picked us up from the ferry terminal to drive the 40 or so minutes to the other end of the island. We picked a place from the Lonely Planet that had bungalows on the beach and was 1200 baht per night ($40), but the bungalows were not very nice, so we moved the next night to the place right next door with much nicer bungalows for only a little more (1400 baht). This is *quite* a bit more than we had been paying for lodging up to this point, but it was also nicer, on the beach, and setup to be all inclusive so that you could just charge everything to your room and pay at the end.

Our first day we just went to the beach right outside our room and drank fruit shakes at the beach bar. We hadn’t really done much laying on the beach up till this point, so I put on a bunch of SPF 50 sunblock and generally tried to stay out of the sun. However, there was a slack line to play on near the beach bar, so I spent too long goofing around on that after swimming and forgot to reapply sunblock so ended up with a mild sunburn on my shoulders. The sun is very strong.

The beach is fairly large and only has 3 places to stay on it, which is much fewer than most of the other beaches, so it feels more private. There are only a few dozen people on the beach at a time, so it’s never crowded feeling. Each of the places on the beach had a restaurant with pretty good food, so we would hop around between them for meals to check out the different bungalows and menus.

Geneveve loves the ocean. She can’t swim, but she runs into the waves with a fearlessness that both delights and worries me. The waves would knock her down and she would laugh. There seemed to be quite a few children on Ko Lanta, and Geneveve took a liking to a little German boy that we kept running into and would follow him around and play with him whenever possible.

Overall we spent most of our time on Ko Lanta just relaxing on or near our beach, but some mornings we would go out on a scooter to see some of the island sites. One day we went to Khao Mai Kaew cave, which was a really fun adventure and made us feel pretty badass to do with a baby. To get to the cave required a little jungle hike with steep stone steps with vines and giant spiders. Once in the cave required climbing ladders through narrow spaces, some minor rock scrambling, and at the end crawling through a tunnel that is small enough that Geneveve had to do on our own since it was too small to carry her through. We also rented a motorbike to see the old town on the east side of the island and did a hike through the park jungle on the south end of the island to the sound of screaming gibbons.

March 9, 2012

Ko Phi Phi – Let’s Party and Snorkel

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 8:05 pm

From Phuket we took a morning ferry to Ko Phi Phi. The ferry system between the islands is still a little confusing to me after having used it a couple times. It’s not clear what the schedules are, the best way to buy tickets, where the ferries will stop, how comfortable they will be, or who runs them. There’s a million different ways to get tickets, most people seem to get them from tour offices or their guest house (what we did), some places list different schedules, the ferries seem to try to upsell smaller tourers while you’re on them, the comfort levels were very different on the ferries we took (some aircon, some packed, some on time), so with all this I’m guessing they’re private boats and not government run, but that’s not clear.

Anyway, Ko Phi Phi is on the way to our desired destination of Ko Lanta, but we figured we’d spend a night on Ko Phi Phi to see it and do a recommended snorkeling tour since snorkeling looked a lot more expensive on Ko Lanta. Ko Phi Phi is totally a backpacker party island. This was both good and bad for us. The good is that it’s small so there’s no roads with motorized vehicles, there’s lots of international, young people which makes for interesting people watching, there’s lots of cool things to do targeted at tourists, and there’s pretty good pizza by the slice. The bad is that it’s a bit more expensive for everything, you really don’t get to experience much of any local culture, and the party goes all night so you can hear clubs going until the wee hours of the morning. We stayed at a nice place that’s a few minutes walk from the center of town, which was good because it was a very nice bungalow with a pool and cost about 1000 baht a night (about $33).

Kim and I had to do our snorkeling tours separately so one of us could watch Geneveve. I did mine first thing in the morning, and the plan was for Kim to go in the afternoon but it got windy in the afternoon so Kim had to wait until the next morning. The snorkeling was great though and well worth the wait. I saw lots of fish, coral, sea turtles and black tipped reef sharks which are very common and not dangerous. Kim didn’t see sharks, but did see a sea snake and other fish I didn’t. There were stops between snorkels that included a beautiful, blue lagoon, and a ridiculously crowded beach that was where the movie “The Beach” was filmed. I’m amazed at how popular movie destination tourism is, and really don’t see the point myself.

While one of us snorkeled, the other got to hang out at the nice pool at our hostel, which Geneveve loved. I remember when I was a kid and how much I loved the pool when my parents stayed in hotels, and having a baby reminds me of that time and makes pools more fun again. Geneveve squeals in delight, kicks, splashes and laughs for hours when we get in the water.

We also walked around town and snacked on farang (foreigner) food since it was so readily available. At night we walked up to the viewpoint on the island to watch the sunset along with the hundreds of other people. Next it was off to Ko Lanta for some laid back beach time.

March 7, 2012

Phuket, Let’s Go Sea Canoeing

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 8:05 pm

One thing we’ve definitely found different travelling with a baby is that doing huge travel days or multiple travel days in a row is not good. We really didn’t intend to spend any time in Phuket since it’s generally a lot of expensive resorts and crowded beaches, which are not our style, but we realized for our own sanity not uprooting every day would be good. So we looked in our Lonely Planet guidebook for stuff to do in the area and noticed the John Gray’s Sea Canoe was in the area, and we had seen his trip’s featured on a Thailand travel video we watched. It’s definitely more expensive than other tours in the area, but in general we’d rather pay a little more to work with tourism businesses that take sustainability, education and fair wages seriously. It was also Kim’s birthday, so we wanted to splurge and do something fun. We had a great time. We saw beautiful islands, caves, rock formations, wildlife, Thai traditions and bioluminescent plankton in the water.

We got picked up at our hostel in downtown Phuket and went to the pier NE of the city to meet up with the other tour participants. There were more people than we expected on the tour, but it was split into two boats of about a dozen people each. John Gray was not on the tour with us as we’d hoped, but certainly understand he can’t go on on every excursion. From Phuket we headed north to the limestone islands.

Our first trip out in the sea canoe (basically an open topped sea kayak) we went through a cave into a bay surrounded on all sides by limestone cliffs. Monkeys running around on the rocks greeted us. We saw a mudskipper, which is a really weird fishlike creature that uses its fins to run around out of the water in the mud. From the bay we went along the cliffs on the outer edge of the island to see all the cool rock formations and see life that clung to the walls until we met back up with our larger boat.

The next stop was in the James Bond Island, Koh Tapu. All the tours seem to come to this place, partly because it was in “The Man With the Golden Gun” film, partly because it’s cool looking. It was still pretty scenery even if completely overcrowded with tours. Here we got to swim a little and goof around in the sea canoes. Geneveve wanted to jump off the boat to me, so I had to figure out how to tread water and catch her while keeping her head above the water. It’s pretty hard, but I managed and Geneveve loved it.

On the boat we made some Kratongs, which are a slice of banana tree trunk that is decorated and floated out on the water. Our guide did most of the arts and crafts work with Geneveve, who mostly helped by pushing small nails into things we told her to. All the guides made a unique looking one that we would later

To end the day we went back to the original cave to light our kratongs and let them float, and more importantly to see the bioluminscent plankton that come out of the mangrove areas. Kim and I have seen this once before in Puerto Rico, and it’s magical. The experience was better in Puerto Rico since we got to swim in the water and there were rays that looked liked glowing ghosts swimming through the water, but splashing sparkly, glowing water on cave walls is pretty darned cool too.

March 6, 2012

From the Mountains to the Beach

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 6:16 am

Today was a day with lots of travel. We woke up early to catch the 8 AM bus from Pai to Chiang Mai (3.5 hours), then got to the airport for our flight to Phuket (a couple hours in the air). Our original plan was to get out of Phuket as quickly as possible and head to a less busy beach area, but on the flight down we read about a sea kayak tour to a bio-luminescent area that piqued our curiosity, and we called and are doing it tomorrow.

The following day, we plan to head to Ko Lanta by ferry. It’s supposed to be very chill and, like every area here, have nice beaches. I think we keep telling ourselves that we’ll do a day where we just don’t do anything, but we keep finding interesting things to go do. We’ll see how we adjust to lounging on the beach.

We caught the cheap bus from the airport to our hotel, and realized it was cheap because halfway into town they stop at their travel agency and try to sell you hotels if you don’t have them, and tours if you seem interested. They weren’t pushy, so it wasn’t too annoying. We got to our hotel and it started to pour. It’s the first rain we’ve seen all trip, but as with most tropical showers, it quickly passed. They’re filming a Korean movie on the roof of our hotel, so that’s interesting. Not sure what it’s called, but maybe we’ll watch it one day if we find out.

March 5, 2012

Pai and Tham Lod Cave

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 6:51 am

We’ve just spent a few days in Pai relaxing and enjoying the more laid back atmosphere. Our hotel is a bunch of little grass huts near the river, and the huts have a nice porch for lounging near the restaurant that plays live music every night. It’s great.

Our first day here we did an elephant trip with what we understand to be one of the more reputable elephant camps, Thom’s Pai Elephant Camp. It was definitely a different experience than the Elephant Nature Park, but still a good one. The elephants don’t look mistreated at all there, it’s just a bit sad to see them chained up and being used for rides after seeing the elephants at the Nature Park. Anyway, what really stood out for me about this place was that you go to go swimming with the elephants, and ride them bareback instead of with one of those uncomfortable (for both people and elephants) saddle chairs. Geneveve road on Kim’s back, and Kim and I both rode on an elephant I think was named Pom Kep. The mahouts (elephant handlers) didn’t speak much English, so it was hard to get any good info on the elephants. Swimming with the elephants in the river was awesome. They sprayed us, dumped us off, flipped people into the water, and got a cool dip in the process. The trip also included a hot spring pool soak and a bamboo raft float, both of which were nice, but not nearly as unique or amazing as the elephant interactions.

Probably our most adventurous activity thus far was renting a motor scooter and driving to Tham Lod cave, about 2 hours from Pai. We’ve rented little scooters in foreign countries before, but this was our first time with a baby on board. It worked out very well actually. I drove, and Kim had Geneveve in a pack and sat behind me. There’s very little traffic on the windy mountain roads, so it was a pretty pleasant ride through the countryside. The trip was a bit longer than necessary because we missed the turn to the cave and ended up having to backtrack.

We got to the famous Cave Lodge about an hour before sunset and hurriedly checked in so that we could get to the cave in time to see the nightly bird and bat migration in an out of the cave. We got to the cave just in time to catch a guide to show us around in the caves before sunset. These caves are huge. I don’t have numbers in my head as I type, but they’re easy to look up. The formations are really cool, and you float on a raft down a small river through the cave to see them. One of the cooler parts of the cave though is that 100′s of thousands of bats leave the cave every night, while 100′s of thousands of birds enter the cave for the night. It’s impressive to see and here as they fill the air. The lodge itself is pretty cool too, with lots of good info in English since it’s run by an Australian guy who’s been there since 1984. It’s another place that we’d spend more time if we had it.

Today we motored back to Pai for another chill evening eating good food and hanging out. Tomorrow we’re taking an early bus back to Chiang Mai to catch a flight south for the beaches. Hopefully all the travel tomorrow will be shortly rewarded by a day lounging in the sun. We still haven’t decided exactly where to spent our beach time yet, but I’m sure wherever we end up it wll be nice. We fly into Phuket, but don’t plan to spend any time there.

Elephant Nature Park

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 6:33 am

With seemingly hundreds of elephant tours near Chiang Mai it’s hard to know which ones are any good and treat the animals well. We went to a place that doesn’t do the standard elephant trekking rides, but instead is hanging out with rescued elephants that are living in a more natural way. The Elephant Nature Park has 35 elephants that have land to roam on and are all roaming free. There’s no rides, but you still get plenty of interaction with the elephants.

When we got there we fed the elephants from a huge bucket of fruit. This was the first of many feedings. It’s really cool to see up close how they use their trunks to do everything. After the feeding we went for a walk out in the field to get to know some elephants. I really liked that our guide was able to tell us every elephant’s story of how they got there, what their personality was, which elephant herd they were a part of and more. Some of the stories were very sad, but it’s apparent that the elephants there are much better off than they were before.

Lunch was a huge buffet, and almost all vegetarian. It’s really great to see a place that takes conservation seriously on every level, down to the food that’s served to guests. They also buy the food for the people and guests from local farmers, and volunteers appear to do much of the cooking and work around the place.

After lunch is when the real fun started. We went down to the river and gave an elephant a bath, sloshing buckets of water onto the elephant and then using a scrub brush to get them clean. They have remarkably thick skin for us to use the giant bristle brushes we did. One of the elephants named Hope is a trouble maker, so when it was announced that he was coming down to the river we had to leave. We climbed up a platform and watched Hope go for a swim. Then we got to know some more elephants, one of which repeatedly gave Geneveve kisses with her sloppy wet trunk. Geneveve loved this.

The founder of the center, a small Thai women called Lek, talked to the group of tourists about the work that was happening and the challenges that ‘domesticated’ elephants in Thailand face. Even though elephants are a protected animal in Thailand, that protection is only for the dwindling wild population, whereas the elephants that are owned have no more protection than livestock. We learned about the awful hazing rituals used to break the elephants for domestication, and how the elephants are often mistreated to make a buck with tourists. It’s definitely the kind of info that you don’t get from most tourist packages out of Chiang Mai.

We almost considered taking a few extra days to volunteer at the center, but it is relatively expensive, and there were other parts of Thailand we wanted to see. I highly recommend coming here if you want an experience with elephants that’s different that what the other 99% of tourists get in Thailand.

March 3, 2012

Bye Chiang Mai, Hello Pai

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 6:01 am

After our day with the elephants near Chiang Mai, we quickly realized that it was just another overly busy city that we didn’t need to stick around in much longer. We spent another day there so Kim could take a cooking class, and so that we could meet up with Danny Mayfield, who also happened to be traveling in Thailand.

Kim’s cooking class meant that I had the morning with Geneveve, so I walked her around the city to see a few of the Buddhist temples. I was already templed out, so I was less than enthusiastic about seeing the giant Buddhas, but was entertained watching Geneveve stare at the monks. I’m not sure either knew what to make of the other. After our walk I played with her in the hotel look until it was time to meet Kim and eat her creations. It was delicious, way too much food, and I hope some the dishes make it onto her repertoire back home.

With my baby tome done I went looking for a Thai massage. Sadly, I ended up with the worst massage experience ever. Based on its being featured in Lonely Planet, I went to a place where all the masseuses are blind. Based on previous experiences I paid for an hour and half, but ended up leaving after 10 minutes. My masseuse started the massage by picking his teeth with his shirt, a few minutes in went to the bathroom, and when he came back took out his cell phone and started making a call. I got up and asked for my money back. My masseuse may have been the worst in the room, but all the blind masseuses were talking extremely loudly with each other which made for a not so pleasant atmosphere for anyone else trying to relax. I ended up going to the women’s prison for a massage instead, which was pretty good, and a very nice atmosphere. It was nothing like being in a prison: nice beds, change of clothes, no security our guards I could see. It still wasn’t nearly as good as the massages in Bangkok because it was too gentle, which I wouldn’t have expected from a women’s prison.

We hung out with Danny in the evening to compare travel notes and have dinner. Unfortunately, his wife Parisa was sick so didn’t come out with us. They had a place outside the city. It’s pretty odd to me that we planned our trip to Thailand independently of anyone, and still ended up seeing two people from Newport here.

The next morning we took a 3.5 hour bus ride up and down some steep and windy roads to get to Pai, a little backpacker oasis of music and good food in the middle of the peaceful mountains of Northern Thailand. We’ve only just got int, but it’s already a major relief to not have the constant sound of traffic nearby.